Russia’s Donbas region could be key to victory

Russia’s Donbas region could be key to victory

On June 8th, smoke filled the sky over the city of Sievierodonetsk, as intense street fighting took place between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

The battle for Sievierodonetsk, which could fall to the Russians within a few days, is about more than one city. Its capture would give Russia a key victory in its drive to seize the entire Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The Donbas territory comprises Luhansk and Donetsk and is a prize for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Following failing to topple Ukraine's government in Kyiv, Mr. Putin focused his military campaign on the Donbas, which makes up about 9 percent of Ukraine's land, but holds significance for its industry, location and potential as a bargaining chip for Moscow. The Donbas borderes Russia and runs from Mariupol in the south to the northern border near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. The most recent census data shows that an estimated 6.2 million people lived in the region before Russia's invasion, which is home to coal mines and steel.

Since 2014, Russian annexed Crimea, a move that Ukraine and its Western allies have called illegal, the separatists have held territory in the Donbas. The proxy forces seized more than a third of the Donbas at the time and declared the formation of two breakaway republics and have been waging a civil war against Ukraine's government since.

More than 14,000 people have died in the fighting since it began. The battle was effectively at a stalemate — albeit one with sporadic and deadly shelling along the roughly 250-mile front line known as the line of contact — until Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Russian and their separatist allies control an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the Donbas, according to Ukrainian officials. Capturing Sievierodonetsk and the neighboring city of Lysychansk would give Russia full control of Luhansk and position its forces to advance further west into the city of Kramatorsk in neighboring Donetsk province, one of the last major cities under Ukrainian control there. If Kramatorsk falls, Mr. Putin's forces would control the whole Donbas region. It is critical from a supply standpoint as well as a symbolic standpoint. Putin could claim a tangible military victory and use the territory as leverage in any future peace negotiations with Ukraine. Holding the Donbas would expand Moscow's land bridge connecting Russian territory to Crimea.

A full capture of Donbas is not certain. Pushing west from Sievierodonetsk could strain Russian supply lines, which proved vulnerable in its early failures to seize Kyiv and other parts of northern Ukraine. The Russian military's tactics of scorched-earth bombardment mean that any territory gained will likely bear widespread destruction and need extensive rebuilding.