Ukraine says Russia’s offensive in Donbas has begun. Here’s what we know

Anatolii Stepanov, AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian soldiers stand on an armored personnel carrier not far from the front-line with Russian troops in Izyum district, Kharkiv region, on Monday.

Ukrainians have been expecting a renewed Russian offensive in the eastern region known as the Donbas, and now Ukraine’s president says it’s underway.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his evening address that Russian forces have begun their new offensive against cities in the east and south, adding that a “substantial part” of the Russian army is now taking part in the military operation.

“Today we can already say that Russian armed forces have begun the assault on the Donbas, which it has been preparing for,” Zelenskyy said.

But others aren’t willing to be that definitive, as NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman tells Morning Edition.

The Pentagon says Russia is still conducting “shaping operations,” or laying groundwork for the offensive by sending in more battalions, artillery, bombs and missiles.

Russian rockets and artillery shells have fallen on multiple Ukrainian cities today, with Ukrainian media reporting explosions and air raid sirens across hundreds of miles.

Most, but not all, of those reports are coming from the eastern part of the country. Strikes hit its second-largest city, Kharkiv, one of the few escape routes from the besieged city of Mariupol, and even targets in the far west.

Meanwhile, a large portion of the Ukrainian army is already in place, and will soon be getting a lot more heavy weaponry from the U.S. and NATO in the form of artillery, helicopters, drones and armored vehicles.

Russian troops will try to box in the Ukrainians, he adds, but the big question is whether they have enough combat power and competence to do so in the days and weeks ahead.

Bowman points to Mariupol, where Russian troops have sieged, bombarded and starved the city but but failed to take control, as one of many examples of “bungling by Russian forces and their commanders.”

He says the Russians have poorly trained troops, are lacking precision-guided missiles and failed to attack Mariupol from multiple angles at once — which could have shaken up the defenders. Plus, as retired Army officer John Spencer told him, Ukrainians have “the will to fight” while the Russians do not.

Bowman says Russia has sent in 12 battalion tactical groups, each numbering 800 to 1,000 soldiers. But Fred Kagan, an American Enterprise Institute analyst, says not to focus solely on those numbers — many battalions are weak because of casualties and lost and damaged equipment, and have poorly trained conscript forces who will face a “battle-hardened” Ukrainian army.

Mariupol is valuable because it’s a key port, and would also help Russians build a land bridge from Russia along the coast to Crimea, which it seized in 2014. If it were to fall, the Pentagon says most of the Russian troops there would head north to the Donbas region for a major battle. Even in that case, Russian forces would still face fighting in cities across the northeast and south, Bowman says, as the Ukrainians continue to put up a fierce resistance.

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