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The Battle for Donbas – The New York Times


When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Vladimir Putin and his inner circle were not the only people who expected a rapid Russian march to victory. Many independent observers did, too.

Instead, Ukraine has held firm.

Ukrainian civilians have shown resilience amid terrible suffering. Its military has kept Russia from taking over Kyiv and even regained some ground in the northeast. And the Russian military has suffered heavy losses, partly because of an overly ambitious strategy — evidently reflecting Putin’s wishes more than military reality — that left its forces stretched thin and vulnerable to counterattacks.

Russia’s early failures explain its new willingness to hold peace negotiations and its promised pullback from Kyiv. U.S. officials understandably expressed skepticism yesterday about whether Putin is genuinely open to ending the war. But Russia really does appear to have narrowed its goals, in response to its battlefield struggles. That’s good news for Ukraine.

At the same time, Russia’s new strategy creates a potential challenge: Increasingly, Russia appears to be concentrating its effort in fewer areas — particularly the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine.

“We’ve seen a major shift toward one specific front in this war,” Michael Kofman of the Russia studies program at CNA told me. “For Russia, it’s much more rational.”

Today’s newsletter examines the battle for Donbas, which is likely to be an increasing focus of the war in coming weeks.

The Donbas region, on the border with Russia, makes up about 9 percent of Ukraine’s landmass. Many of its residents have long felt at least as much of a connection to Russia as to the rest of Ukraine.

After Russia invaded a nearby region of Ukraine in 2014 and annexed it — Crimea — Moscow-backed separatists in Donbas started their own civil war against Ukraine’s government. The separatists proclaimed the formation of two breakaway republics, and fighting has continued sporadically over the past eight years. Last month, Putin recognized both republics.

Focusing on Donbas has multiple advantages for Russia. In recent weeks, it has already made progress in taking over territory there. It can hold that territory without the long, exposed supply lines that Ukraine has successfully attacked elsewhere. A battle over Donbas also gives Russia an opportunity to encircle and destroy a large chunk of Ukraine’s military. More than a third of all Ukrainian troops may be in the region, fighting both the separatists and the Russian military.

Russia appears to be on the verge of being able to create such a pincer around these Ukrainian troops, coming from both the east and the south. Experts refer to this Russian progress as a “land bridge” from Crimea to the Donbas.

The city of Mariupol, in southern Donbas, is a part of this story. Putin and his military planners have attacked Mariupol so brutally because it is the largest city in the potential land bridge that they do not yet control. It also has a major port.

(This Times story examines Russia’s attempts to starve the people of Mariupol, including the physical and psychological toll of hunger. “The fire was gone from their eyes,” one mother said about her children, describing her futile attempts to distract them by reading fairy tales.)

Some analysts, like Kofman, believe that Russia would struggle to maintain the land bridge for an extended period. Its military would face many of the same challenges — a dedicated opposition, dispersed over a large territory — that have bedeviled it elsewhere in Ukraine.

Others think a sustained land bridge is more likely. “With its long history of starting wars disastrously but then winning them by piling in more men and matériel to overwhelm the defender through sheer brute force, Russia has time on its side,” said Keir Giles of the Conflict Studies Research Center in Britain. “It can keep up the pressure on Ukraine longer than Ukraine can keep up Western interest in supporting it in its fight for freedom.”

Either way, Putin may try to use the cease-fire negotiations as a way to lock in the territory Russia now controls or soon may, including the land bridge. That prospect worries some experts who want to see Putin defeated. “We’re at the next moment of significant danger around this conflict,” Frederick Kagan, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told me.

If the West pressures Ukraine to accept a cease-fire that leaves the land bridge intact, Ukraine would be a broken country, Kagan argues. It would be cut off from a large number of its citizens and from economically important coal and natural gas resources in the east. Many parts of central Ukraine would be vulnerable to Russian attacks and disruption.

“If we allow the Russians under the facade of a cease-fire to control that line, that’s exactly what I’m worried about,” Kagan added.

The war has gone surprisingly well for Ukraine so far, but it still faces major risks. “I think a lot of folks in the West are more starry-eyed than Ukrainians are,” Kofman said. “I’m skeptical that either side is ready for peace, because both sides in this war still have opportunities in the battlefield.”

Related: “It’s always wiser to treat your adversary as a canny fox, not a crazy fool,” Bret Stephens writes, asking whether Putin’s goal was always to take over the east, rather than to conquer the whole country.

Relaxing: The magic of a dip in a hot spring.

Hollywood: Will Smith’s slap hangs over a historic Oscars for Black men, Wesley Morris writes. (Times Opinion writers mulled the meaning of the slap.)

Ask Well: Why am I bloated all the time?

A Times classic: Why scientists think fiber is good for you.

Advice from Wirecutter: Find the cheapest gas.

Lives Lived: Joan Joyce’s softball pitching feats and achievements in basketball, volleyball and golf made her one of the greatest female athletes of her generation. She died at 81.

After two years of pandemic postponements, roughly 2.5 million couples are planning to get married in 2022, up from two million in 2019.

The glut of weddings has made it harder to pull together a dream ceremony. Caterers, venues and even calligraphers are booked solid, forcing some couples to enlist friends to help with food and photos (or bribe vendors to bump others off the list).

But neither logistical problems nor Covid uncertainty is stopping many people. “I think we’re at a point where it feels like it needs to happen no matter what,” Leslie Krivo-Kaufman told The Times before her wedding this month.

For those who have their plans in order, though, an extra two years of savings has allowed some couples to go over the top, with weddings that look like a throwback to the 1980s. This story, by Ivy Manners, explores this year’s trends — including ornate cakes, elaborate floral arrangements and lacy gowns.



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