This week, the new phase of Russia’s war in Ukraine has taken form. It is a war over control of the Donbas, the eastern Ukrainian region where Russia has been supporting a separatist rebellion since 2014.
Whereas the war — which began with the Russian invasion on February 24 — previously spanned the country, centering on a Russian push to seize Ukraine’s capital and most populous city, Kyiv, its newest offensive is narrowly focused on a region several hundred miles to the east.
“The Russian troops have begun the battle for the Donbas,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced in a Tuesday address.
But the sources I spoke with all agreed on one thing: In the big picture, the outcome in the Donbas might be less important than it may seem. That’s because Russia’s ultimate aim — regime change in Kyiv, or at least forcing Ukraine to submit to a Russian-dominated political future — has been out of reach for weeks. Russia can continue to launch missiles at Ukrainian cities in other regions, terrorizing civilians, but it cannot currently threaten to actually seize those population centers or topple President Volodymyr Zelenksyy’s government.
“Politically, Russia [already] lost the war,” says Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military. “When it withdrew from the north, around Kyiv, it eliminated any impetus Ukraine might have for settlement.”
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