Amid mounting fears among western officials that Russia’s war in Ukraine could drag on for months or years, the Kremlin appears to be focusing its operations around the city of Izium as part of renewed efforts to seize the entirety of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
According to Ukrainian military officials, Russia has been amassing forces around the city, 75 miles south east of Kharkiv on the Donets river, as well as around the Russian city of Belgorod across the border. There are unconfirmed claims that the chief of the Russian general staff, Valery Gerasimov, has been put in command of the push.
In the past week alone, Moscow has added 13 battalion tactical groups to the forces fighting in eastern and southern Ukraine, representing between 10,000 and 13,000 extra troops.
The mounting scale of the offensive around Izium comes as an unnamed US official suggested on Thursday that some Russian troops who had been fighting in the southern port city of Mariupol were being moved north west, perhaps as part of an effort to encircle areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions still under Ukrainian control.
According to the latest update from the Institute for the Study of War, Russian forces appeared to be seeking to bypass Izium to avoid getting bogged down in fighting there, instead heading in the direction of Slovyansk, an assessment was made by the most recent Ukrainian updates .
“Russian forces attacking [the] southwest from Izium likely seek to bypass Ukrainian defenses on the direct road to Slovyansk,” read the institute’s update, noting that Russian forces had only made minor gains in the past 24 hours.
It added, however, that “additional Russian reinforcements continue to deploy to Belgorod to support the Izium advance”.
Russian forces appear to be attempting to break through the Ukrainian defenses on a salient to the north-east of Slovyansk, while attempting to encircle Ukrainian forces to the east at Severodonetsk.
The new focus of the Kremlin’s war – aimed at building a broad land bridge from the Russian border to occupied Crimea and beyond – has come with a shift in tactics to a slower and more deliberate advance as the Russian military has continued to struggle with logistics and other problems in managing its campaigns.
The latest stage of the offensive has been marked by an increased concentration of artillery, and the use of artillery fire, to support the slowly advancing Russian troops, with a Pentagon official describing “slow and uneven” progress in fierce fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
According to a Pentagon official quoted by the New York TimesRussian troops, however, are still only making “incremental” progress in the campaign around Izium.
Commenting on the reported appointment of Gerasimov to command the offensive “at the operational and tactical level” a senior western official briefed journalists on Friday that it underlined the operational difficulties Russia was seeing that it needed to move its most senior military officer forward.
“I think the reports, if credible, show the command and control challenges that Russia is facing. The fact that Gerasimov has come forward to get some momentum behind assaults is a real statement of the challenges in the Donbas.
The official added: “In the Donbas, we are seeing slow progress – sometimes as little as a kilometer a day in terms of terrain. And what we are seeing there is the indiscriminate use of fire power while they are being smarter using artillery in supporting ground forces. But it is being done in such a way that it puts the civilian population at enormous risk in some towns and villages.”
With the failure of its attempted coup de main against Kyiv in the initial weeks of the war, which saw Russian special forces infiltrate perilously close to where Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy was sheltering, Moscow has settled on a tactic of slowly grinding away at Ukrainian resistance.
While Moscow has lost thousands of troops and hundreds of armored vehicles, Ukraine’s spending on ammunition and weapons systems has also left it depleted, explaining the huge $33bn (£26.3bn) military aid package announced this week by US president Joe Biden.
All of which has not only raised the specter of a long war, but the risk that in the end – as Boris Johnson said a week ago – Russia might prevail.
“We need to be prepared for the long term,” Jens Stoltenberg, Natural Secretary General, told a summit in Brussels this week.
“There is absolutely the possibility that this war will drag on and last for months and years.”
That assessment followed comments by Boris Johnson, made while visiting Delhi last week, that painted an equally pessimistic picture, including the prospect of a Russian victory.
“I think the sad thing is that that is a realistic possibility,” he said. “Putin has a huge army. He has a very difficult political position because he’s made a catastrophic blunder. The only option he now has really is to continue to try to use his appalling grinding approach led by artillery, trying to grind the Ukrainians down.
“He’s very close to securing a land bridge in Mariupol. The situation is, I’m afraid, unpredictable at this stage, but we’ve just got to be realistic about it.”
That pessimism has been driven by a number of factors. Even while Bulgaria has offered to help Ukraine export its wheat via the port of Varna, Russia’s naval blockade of Ukraine’s coast remains significantly damaging.
In the short term, despite the heavy losses of men and material, Russian forces still have easier access to equipment resupplies until US and other western arms supplies step up, including a significant advantage in deployed naval and air forces although western officials say that the balance of forces is no longer quite so “overwhelming” for Ukraine.
While the US and the west believes Ukraine “can win” the war against Russia – a view expressed by US defense secretary Lloyd Austin after his recent visit to Ukraine it is likely to involve a bloody and protracted entanglement.