Ukraine’s eastern forces lay wide open to attacks from the west. They will surrender in a fortnight.
Donetsk Oblast spans 26,517 square kilometres. (For comparison: Maryland covers 25,142 sq. k.; Wales encompasses 20,789 sq. k.; and Vancouver Island: 31,285.)
In 2014 Donetsk separatists joined their northern comrades in Luhansk Oblast in declaring independence from Kyiv. The ensuing 5-month war yielded a 450-kilometre “Line of Contact” severing western Donetsk Oblast from its capitol. Ukraine’s army held western Donetsk at the current war’s outset, February 24, 2022.
Prior to February 24 both Ukraine and Russia poured troops and equipment into this theatre. Ukraine positioned half its 200,000-strong ground force along this eastern front.
The anticipated headlong Russian charge across the old scrimmage line never materialized. A full frontal assault would have wrought massive casualties because the Ukrainians spent several years concretizing firing positions and sowing minefields west of the Line of Contact.
Instead, the Russians sent divisions through Crimea and Belarus to threaten Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa. This was diversion. Overrunning Kyiv would have spelled even greater casualties. The Russians sought to neither storm, nor encircle, these cities. Threatening these cities sufficed to paralyze Ukraine’s high command and freeze Ukrainian assets in place.
February 24: sixty thousand of Ukraine’s best-trained, best-equipped troops burrow into the Line of Contact’s western vistas.
April 4: these forces remain in place without having seen combat.
Russia’s air force, navy and drone warriors chip away at Ukraine’s military infrastructure and equipment. Russia claims to have destroyed 4,000 military vehicles and 800 artillery pieces. Much of this carnage occurred amidst ground-fighting in Mariupol, but Ukraine’s Donetsk contingent has not been spared missile and drone attacks. Blasted warehouses have not been re-stocked.
Donetsk’s second largest city, Mariupol (pre-war population 450,000), laying west of the Line of Conflict, fell under the control of a quasi-rogue yet de facto southern command centre for Ukraine’s eastern operations.
On March 7, the Russians surrounded Mariupol, trapping 15,000 Ukrainian soldiers. By April 1, 4,000 Ukrainians occupied tunnels beneath three pockets of Mariupolian rubble. Clearing operations on these rabbits’ warrens began April 2. Downtown was cleared in two days. The Russians recently downed three helicopters dispatched to rescue Ukrainian field commanders.
As the Battle of Mariupol winds down, Russia concentrates on Donetsk.
Luhansk Oblast is 90% Russian-controlled. Fighting rages in the last 2,500 sq. k. of contested Luhansk territory.
Donetsk Oblast remains 45% (12,500 sq. k.) Ukrainian territory.
Final battles will be chiefly cannonades with the Russians possessing overwhelming artillery superiority. The battles will be an opportunity for Russia’s military-industrial-complex to showcase their wares.
These would include the “Msta”—a heavily armoured self-contained howitzer impervious to all but direct anti-armour ordnance strikes. Mstas cruise at 60 kph. They fire 45-kilo fragmentation bombs at a rate of ten per minute. Rocket-assist projectiles hit targets 28 kilometres away. (Russia owns 1,100 Mstas.)
The impending conflagrations will debut the latest 2S7 Malka upgrade—the world’s largest mobile artillery weapon—capable of firing 100-kilo projectiles to distances of 47 kilometres.
Ukraine will counter these Malkas and Mstas with a depleted inventory of unarmoured, non-rocket-assisted, truck-towed, 1970s-era field-guns.
Another Russian armoured artillery vehicle, the TOS-1A, shares the Msta’s mobility. The TOS-1A is a multiple rocket launcher capable of lobbing 24 thermobaric bombs, in 1.5 seconds, to distances of 9 kilometres. Thermobaric bombs spray, and then ignite, mist-clouds of fuel. A single full TOS-1A volley inflicts a “zone of annihilation” slightly larger than a professional football pitch. TOS-1As target troops in foxholes and trenches.
Air superiority gives the Russians micro-detailed, up-to-the-second arial panoramas of all battle-fields. Gunnery sergeants receive actionable targeting intel at the speed of light.
Scurrying like blind mice, the Ukrainians will not hold a square metre of open-field Donetsk.
Readily available civilian cover consists of a 20-kilometre by 60-kilometre banana-shaped strip of north-west Donetsk running from Sloviansk (pre-war pop 115,000), south through Kramatorsk (200,000), to Konstiantynovka (75,000).
The Russians recently captured Izium, fifty kilometres northwest of Sloviansk, blocking the road to Kharkiv. Russian forces north of Mariupol encroach upon Konstiantynovka’s environs. Further southwest, Melitopol, has been a Russian hub a month. Ukraine’s eastern forces lay wide open to attacks from the west.
Civilian populations in these potential redoubts, reduced by exodus, do not offer much human shield potential. Moreover, Ukraine’s professional field commanders seem disinclined to implement the pathological human shield strategy deployed by Mariupol’s zealots. They will surrender in a fortnight.