What's going on in the Donbass?
UPDATE 11 MAY 2022
Various media articles have been asserting that there is battle for Izyum underway, as though the Russians are fighting for the city of some 45,000 people, just northwest of Sloviansk and in the Kharkiv oblast. It is a pretty town in the Donbass, with a complex multi-ethic heritage but whose strategic value as a bridgehead has alas caused it to be fought over on multiple occasions over its history.
We wish to emphasise that at the current time there is nothing that might call itself a 'Battle For Izyum' underway. On 1 April 2022 the Ukrainian Armed Forces issued a press release confirming that Izyum had been occupied by the Russian Armed Forces, apparently mostly peacefully although there are disputes about the extent of damage to civilian buildings which we are not in a position to resolve.. The Mayor of Izyum at the time of writing is from the same political party as Ukraine's President, Volodimir Zelenskiy, called 'Servant of the People' party. He has not been replaced. Izyum has not (yet) been rublised, and neither to the best of our knowledge has any other Russian captured territory in Kharkiv oblast.
However the Russian Armed Forces have informed us that they are using Izyum as a forward operating centre to lead the assaults on the Ukrainian held towns of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, more infrastructurally significant towns to the south. In response, to slow the Russian advance, Ukrainian troops are shelling Izyum.
We do not know whether this Russian narrative is true in whole or in part: we have not been to Izyum but we have contacts with persons in the region.
Over recent days and weeks we have been told by the media that the Donbass is the now the principal locus of battle between Ukrainian and Russian forces. But what do we mean by the Donbass, and what is the reality of the military situation on the ground?
The Donbass is a region with substantial deposits of iron ore and metallurgical quality coal that helped forge the Russian industrial revolution. Following the Ukrainian constitution, the area constituting the Donbass amounts to the entirety of the Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhiya, Dnipropetrovsk and the southeastern half of the Kharkiv oblast.
As well as mining, the Donbass region is replete with cities with iron and steel factories and other heavy industry based upon steel production. The region's principal port, for distribution of steel products around the world, is Mariupol, Donetsk oblast, on the Sea of Azov.
The Donbass region is of enormous economic value to both Russia and Ukraine. The political and economic harmony between both countries depends upon cordial diplomatic and economic relations between the two countries relating to the Donbass region.
Those relations began to break down in 2014 when western money and political influence, backed by the financing of two Ukrainian oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov (steel) and Igor Kolomoisky (banking), removed from office the politically roughly neutral (or eastward leaning) but largely incompetent President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, in the course of the Maidan Revolution.
Moscow, determined to ensure that economic relations between Russia and Ukraine, so important to the Russian industrialised economy, could not be torn asunder just by way of a financially backed putsch by two oligarch criminals, decided to cement the point by annexing half of each of the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Nevertheless it seems that these oligarchs, who imagined that they held the economically sensitive sack of the Kremlin in their clenched fists, decided to keep pushing, arranging for a rightist Ukrainian language dominant (and anti-Russian) government to seize power in Kyiv by way of corrupt carousel voting (a notorious perversion of democracy prevalent in Ukraine involving bribing voters) in 2019.
This set the scene for an ethnically divided Ukraine, the ethnic division premised upon language. The northwest, including the capital Kyiv, would favour Ukrainian speakers (Ukrainian is a version of Polish written in Cyrillic); the south and the east speak Russian (including the entirety of the Donbass).
This attempt to divide Ukraine in two on ethnic lines displeased the Kremlin, who had vested financial interests in South and East Ukraine, who thereupon hence sent the largest European land army since World War II to surround Ukraine in the course of 2021.
Nevertheless in a shocking act of political blindness, western Europe missed the significance of what was happening or why the Russians were so disgruntled as to take these extreme measures. Hence no mitigating measures of quiet dialogue with Moscow was engaged in while Moscow was gradually - but overtly - amassing this enormous land army.
When Russian invaded in Ukraine in late February 2022, the western media focused upon what was essentially a distraction - the threatened occupation of Kyiv - whereas the Russians spent the first weeks quickly occupying the greater majority of the undefended Donbass.
About 65 per cent of the geographical territory of the Donbass was seized by Russian forces within the first three weeks of the war, as the map introducing this article reveals.
The areas of the Donbass remaining to be occupied by Russia are (a) some rural areas and settlements and strategic railheads in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts; (b) the cities of Zaporizhzhiya and Dnipropetrovsk; and (c) the industrial city of Kharkiv, on the Russian border.
Already Russian forces have totally dominated the strategically essential Kakhovka reservoir and associated power stations in northern Zaporizhzhiya oblast.
It is hard to imagine that it will take the Russian Armed Forces more than six months to one year to achieve total control of the outstanding Donbass cities and hence of the entirety of the Donbass.
At the same time, the southern city of Nikolaev (a shipbuilding town using Donbass steel) and Odessa (a southwestern port city that closes the loop with Russian-occupied Pridnestrovia, a sliver of Moldovan territory populated by Russian-speaking Ukrainian people) will be occupied.
Only once all these things are completed will the Russians be prepared to engage in negotiations for a final peace settlement with western powers.
No level of 'pressure' on Moscow will change Moscow's negotiating position, because the backbone of Russia's heavy industry economy is worth more to Russia than any harm that can be inflicted upon her by western sanctions. That is why Russia is prepared to nuclear weapons if necessary: the future of the Donbass is an existential threat to the Russian Federation.
The idea that any level of western financial or military support for Ukraine can do anything other than slightly slow the progressive total Russian occupation of the Donbass is fanciful. Financial support is just stolen by the Kyiv elites; military support is immediately blown up by Russian hypersonic cruise missiles before it ever leaves the ammunition dump.
We strongly suspect that Russian technological military capacity is being replaced in Russian heartland factories at a greater rate than she is using such technology or that it is being destroyed by Ukrainian proxy western military armour, irrespective of certain structural weaknesses of the Russian Armed Forces. Russia is the biggest country in the world, her military-industrial capacity, when faced with existential threat, virtually limitless. We learned that from the Second World War.
I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest or the safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of South-Eastern Europe. That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.
-- Winston Churchill