The war in the Donbass is not yet over, but it has entered a new phase. The territory that Russia occupied during its initial thrust towards Kyiv and Donetsk are now being retaken by Ukrainian troops with help from pro-government militias they’ve recruited locally who know how to fight Russian soldiers better than anyone else does because this area was always considered part of Ukraine before you had your own opinion about things happening here!
Over three weeks ago, Russia launched a new phase of its war in Ukraine: an effort aimed at seizing control of the Donbas region in the country’s east. This new objective was a significant climbdown from its initial goal of regime change in Kyiv, and one that seemed more achievable. Many observers thought the offensive might yield enough concrete gains for Putin to say “mission accomplished” on May 9, a Russian holiday called Victory Day commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Yet when the day itself came, Putin did not say much of anything along those lines. Perhaps this was because he had little to brag about.
A May 9 US intelligence estimate concluded that the Russians had gained only a few miles in the Donbas region since the offensive began; a Pentagon official described Russia’s efforts as “incremental and somewhat anemic.” The offensive’s aim — a sweeping advance cutting off Ukrainian forces in the Donbas from the rest of the country — is looking increasingly out of reach.
“They clearly lack the forces to be able to achieve this operational scheme,” says Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the CNA think tank. “The offensive isn’t making dramatic gains, and there appears to be very little likelihood of a general breakthrough.”
What Russia’s unimpressive offensive means for the war’s big picture is less clear.
During the war’s first phase, when the heaviest fighting was focused on Kyiv, Russian forces were able to gobble up large swaths of the Donbas — advancing across as much as 80 percent of the region’s territory, per a local Ukrainian official’s estimate in late April. Repulsing the current Russian advance is thus not enough for Ukraine to attain total victory in the region; to do so, its forces would need to go on the offensive and take back significant amounts of land.
Some experts believe the Ukrainians are capable of doing just that — that the Russian offensive will soon peter out and, quite possibly, collapse into a full-scale rout. Others are more skeptical, noting that the Ukrainians haven’t proven their offensive capabilities and have also suffered significant losses. They predict a range of possible outcomes, including a stalemate with entrenched lines on both sides or a fluid conflict where the two sides continually swap territory.
But while much remains unpredictable about the Ukraine war, it’s fair to say the range of plausible outcomes is shrinking. Back when Russia launched its invasion in late February, it appeared likely that Moscow would eventually succeed at toppling the Ukrainian government. Now that possibility is nearly unthinkable, with even the limited victory of stamping out the Ukrainian presence in the Donbas seeming unlikely at best.
Russia’s current territorial holdings in Ukraine give it some leverage during any (as-yet-hypothetical) peace negotiations. But Ukraine’s battlefield victories mean that Russia will, in virtually any plausible scenario, fall far short of its initial war aims. There are fewer and fewer favorable endgames for Russia, and it’s hard to see how that could change.
How we know Russia’s offensive is stalling out
The Donbas is Ukraine’s easternmost region, stretching from Luhansk down to around Mariupol in the south and directly bordering Russia and Russian-held territory in southern Ukraine. There has been fighting in the region since 2014, when pro-Russian separatists began a war against the central government in the Donbas’s eastern areas. Prior to the 2022 invasion, these fighters controlled about one-third of the Donbas; much of Russian war propaganda has focused on the need to “protect” the pro-Russian population in the Donbas from a supposed Ukrainian genocide.
No such genocide has been taking place. From the outset, the Russian invasion has been an act of aggression — an attempt to assert control over Ukrainian territory and topple its government. Part of the early attack included a move westward through the Donbas, which expanded the amount of the region’s territory nominally under Russian control.
Yet with the bulk of its forces preoccupied elsewhere in Ukraine, Russia was not able to consolidate its hold on the region. Ukrainian defenders in Izyum, a city in the Kharkiv region just northwest of the Donbas, held off Russian invaders pushing down from the north for an impressively long time — buying time for the Joint Forces, the battle-tested Ukrainian fighters in the Donbas, to fortify their positions.
The current Russian effort in the Donbas, described as the war’s “second phase,” was seemingly designed to finally crush the Joint Forces by cutting them off from the rest of Ukraine. To do that, Russian forces tried moving down from the north, out from the east, and up from the south.
This April 22 map from the Institute of the Study of War (ISW) shows the situation at the start of the Donbas-focused offensive. Russian-controlled territory is in red; points of major conflict with Ukrainian forces are circled in green: