Is Donbass war approaching endgame?

Facts on the ground

Since 2017, I’ve produced a half hour weekly radio program focused on combat reports from US-involved wars. I’ve closely followed the Ukraine war since direct Russian involvement began in February 2022.

Back then, the west was overstating the potential of the Russian operation. They insisted Russia could capture Kiev in three days. They were convinced the modest Russian force could occupy half the vast country. That actually worked to Kiev’s disadvantage, as it kept its reserves away from Donbass until the Russians had captured Severodonetsk and Lisichansk. That gave the Russians control of nearly all of Luganskaya Oblast, and a strong position around Donetsk city. After withstanding the western-assisted counteroffensive in 2023, they were ready to press their advantage.

Now, the west understates the Russian potential. Donbass was always the primary goal, albeit a difficult one. Ukrainian forces were well dug in, especially at Avdeevka. But a series of gradual breakthroughs led a few months ago to the Russian capture of Avdeevka and Maryinka. Their progress since then has been measured and steady. The Donbass lines are finally broken, and Kiev has no way to hold that ground.

Massive casualties and equipment losses

Week after week, Ukrainian forces have sustained more than 10,000 casualties on all fronts. Tellingly, they have also lost fewer than 100 armored vehicles a week. Casualty to armor loss ratios had previously been well under 100 to 1, now they are consistently higher. This means Ukraine is trying to delay the inevitable with bodies rather than equipment. They are further frustrated by the Russian reentry into Kharkovska oblast, diverting their reserves from Donbass.

Last ditch western gambits

The US Congress agreed to send another massive aid package, but too late to make a difference. The western equipment sent in 2023 was rapidly burned, and that will happen again if the new equipment sees action. It is becoming obsolete in the new era of advanced drone warfare.

Unsurprisingly, the west reacted to losing by escalating. Biden leaned further into direct involvement by quietly delivering ATACMS rockets, then allowing their use on Russian territory. The ATACMS are the longer-range projectile used by the HIMARS systems already in Kiev’s possession. They have range up to 300km, allowing the Ukrainians to use them against Crimea, which they promptly did. The ATACMS are a revenge weapon at this point, not a tide-turner. They gain little to nothing, at the risk of provoking a much bigger war.

No Military Solution?

Vladimir Putin recently restated the modest Russian peace proposal from March 2022. The west would have to agree to recognize the annexations of Crimea, Donetsk, Lugansk, and Zaporozhskaya and Khersonskaya Oblasts. It would also have to agree to a neutral and demilitarized Ukraine. Under the circumstances, that’s the best offer it’s going to get.

Recent European elections dealt a blow to those who want to continue the war. But locally, there is little remaining doubt that Russian goals on the Donbass will be achieved. Any settlement will be focused on the rest of the country.

And that’s what’s dangerous now. To many countries, war is a means to end, but to our own government, it’s an end in itself. Our government in its current militarized, bureaucratic form could not exist without continuing it. Vladimir Zelensky may give up, or be replaced, but western manipulation of all territories near Russia will not likely end soon.

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