Why Putin is concentrating on troops in eastern Ukraine

Putin has described Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine as a “special military operation.”

Mikhail Klimentiev | Afp | Getty photos

Russian President Vladimir Putin is overseeing a change in military policy in the face of an inappropriate attack by the Kremlin in Ukraine and a reorganization of troops in the eastern part of the country in order to take control of the Donbas region.

Analysts see the change in Russia’s approach as tacit acknowledgment of mistakes and say that fierce opposition from Ukrainian forces has thwarted Putin’s attempt to quickly seize major cities and overthrow the government.

The next phase of the war is likely to lead to a dangerous stalemate, according to experts, which is already exacerbating a devastating humanitarian crisis as Russia’s top commanders seek to establish full control of the Donetsk and Luhansk Republican Republics.

Ukraine’s deputy prime minister on Wednesday urged people in the eastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk to evacuate amid growing fears of an impending attack. “It is necessary now, because then people will be shot and threatened with death,” said Iryna Vereshchuk.

It comes less than two weeks after Sergei Rudskoy, Russia’s deputy chief of staff, announced that troops were withdrawing from the attack across the country. Instead, Rudskoy said the Kremlin’s goal was to focus on the “complete liberation” of the Donbas region.

“It seems to me that this is the biggest single story since the war began,” Christopher Granville, executive director of EMEA and international political research at TS Lombard, told CNBC by telephone. “I thought so at the time, and I have not changed my mind … since then.

Granville said the re-concentration of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine foreshadowed “some far too credible horror”. He mentioned particular concerns about Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, two major cities located in the northern part of the Donetsk region.

Families have been seen queuing for days outside the Kramatorsk train station.

Fadel Senna | Afp | Getty photos

Thousands of people have tried to flee the Donbas area and many families have been queuing for days at Kramatorsk main train station to try to get to safety.

For some, the situation is far too familiar.

Ukrainian forces fought separatists with Russian support in Kramatorsk in 2014, and Granville said it was known that the nearby city of Slovyansk had “totemic significance” for separatists in the Donbas.

Russia has not yet deployed troops that have withdrawn from the so-called battle of Kyiv in the eastern offensive, according to experts at the War Investigation Institute, but troops are believed to be preparing an attack on Slovyansk.

“From a military point of view, I think it must be a question of success and morale. Russia, which is targeting troops stationed in Kyiv, what is the purpose? What are they trying to do?” said Granville.

“It’s just common sense that troops need to have targets and the natural purpose of the plot is to get territory. This is the Donbas campaign,” he said. “The soldiers who are fighting can see what they are fighting for, they can see progress. And I think it will reach from the highest levels of Russian commanders to the commanders and men on the ground.”

Fork in the road

Jonathan Flint, a military analyst and adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, believes there are two ways for Russia to try to achieve its new military goals.

“One would be for Russia to retreat to relative security and use this opportunity to re-arm, reorganize and strengthen its forces for a more organized and capable offensive back into Ukrainian territory,” Flint told CNBC.

However, this approach is not without risks, especially given that Ukrainian forces could cross borders to communicate with Russia and other attempts at invasion could fail, as it did in the first place, he said.

“The other option would be to establish itself in these areas and make it anything but impossible for Ukrainian forces to regain them and bring them back under Ukrainian control,” Flint said. “In the end, this may prove to be a wiser path for Russia, because by strengthening the frozen conflict, it would effectively prevent Ukraine from joining the EU or NATO in the future, despite all the commitments that have been made in the peace talks.

Bruno Lete, head of security and defense at The German Marshall Fund, told CNBC that while Russian forces had lost the battle for Kyiv, the nearly 6-week war in the Kremlin was not over.

“To the east, we also have to look to the south of Ukraine. Large areas of Ukraine’s coastline east of the Crimea are already occupied,” said Lete. “Russia is clearly trying to establish a land bridge between Crimea and Russia. If Mariupol falls, Russia will have succeeded.”

Russia’s heavy fighting and airstrikes continue in Mariupol, the British secret service said on Wednesday, in an operation likely to put pressure on Ukrainian forces in the southeastern part of the city to surrender.

The British Ministry of Defense estimated that most of the remaining 160,000 inhabitants of Mariupol do not have access to electricity, communications, medicine, heat or water – which underscores the worsening humanitarian crisis there.

Only when one side finds the pain unbearable do I expect to see a movement towards peace.

Jonathan Flint

Professor at Case Western Reserve University

Lete said Russia could also consider stepping up attacks on Odesa’s strategically important port center on the Black Sea coast to build a coastline bridge from the Crimean peninsula to Transnistria – a Moldovan breakaway zone occupied by Russian troops.

“Ukrainians have the ability to defend themselves on land, but much less in the air. “Therefore, the first stage of these next battles will be characterized by Russia launching missile and air strikes on important and civilian infrastructure,” he added.

Putin will face “moment of truth”

Russia’s return from the suburbs of Kyiv has coincided with an outpouring of international condemnation as world leaders reacted in horror to growing evidence of war crimes.

The Kremlin has denied allegations that it killed civilians and accused Ukraine, without evidence, of being suspicious of defaming the Russian military.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russia of committing genocide in Ukraine, but US President Joe Biden has called for Putin to be convicted of war crimes.

Russia has said its military will now focus on “completely liberating” Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Bulent Kilic | Afp | Getty photos

Fabrice Pothier, Rasmussen Global’s chief political officer, said Russia’s goal seemed to be to strengthen the Kremlin’s territory in the eastern Donbas since 2014.

“I think it’s a game about who can last longer and who can convince the public that the fight is worth the cost,” Pothier told CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe on Tuesday. “I think at the moment Zelenskyy is in a strong position as long as he gets the right support from the West.”

Putin, on the other hand, seems to have strong internal support from Russia, Pothier said, but how long is uncertain. “I think it will be a moment of truth, [a moment] to count on the Russian leader for his people. “

Finally, Gran Lville told TS Lombard that Russia’s offensive was likely to turn into a war. “It seems to me that Russia’s stance will be more defensive… and this is a formula for a very long-running conflict.”

Flint was also skeptical of the impending revolution in peace talks. “Only when one side finds the pain unbearable do I expect to see movement towards peace,” he said.

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