Can and will Russia continue its offensive into the West?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s statements on Wednesday on Russia’s new ambitions in Ukraine beyond the Donbass give the impression that the Russian army is on a winning streak. The reality on the ground, however, is far more nuanced and prompts one to wonder why Russia would think it justified to add more targets to its offensive.

Donbass is apparently not enough. Russia is now targeting other territories after a 149-day war that began on February 24. “Not only the people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (the separatist territories in eastern Ukraine, editor’s note), it is also the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia (in the south) and a series of other territories ” that the Russian army has in the crosshair, confirmed Sergueï Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wednesday, July 20.

A triumphant posture that might be surprising. True, Russia has advanced in Donbass: at the beginning of July it confirmed that it controls the entire Luhansk oblast (Russia’s border region in the southeast of Ukraine), as confirmed by the Institute for the Study. of War, an independent American institution for military analysis.

But it is not the same story in Donetsk, the other side of Donbass. Important cities in the north of this region, such as Kramatorsk or Sloviansk, still escape Russian control. “Russia is making slow progress, and we’re seeing it suffer a lot of losses, especially in equipment and material,” summed up Sim Tack, a military analyst for Forces Analysis, a company in conflict monitoring.

Prepare the ground for “rigged” referendums on self-determination

A situation on the ground that therefore seems incompatible with the ambitions shown by Sergei Lavrov. Besides considering that the Minister of Foreign Affairs “actually only announces the goals that have already been achieved”, Sim Tack suggested.

The Russian diplomat will play on the ambiguities of geographical names. He woke up, in fact, Kherson – a city under Russian control – and Zaporijjia. The latter was not yet occupied by the Russians, but “part of the oblast (Ukrainian administrative region) of Zaporizhia – which notably included the port city of Mariupol – was already occupied”, recalled Sim Tack.

In this hypothesis, “Sergei Lavrov’s declarations will serve to prepare the ground to justify an attempt in the future to conquer the regions currently controlled by Russia”, estimates Jeff Hawn, specialist in military questions at Russia and external consultant to the New Lines Institute. , an American geopolitical research center.

An analysis shared by John Kirby, the spokesman for the United States Department of Defense, accused Moscow on July 20 of planning “rigged” referendums on self-determination in the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions to will be empowered by the illusion of popular support for Russia’s involvement. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, used the same method in 2014 to justify the annexation of Crimea.

Moscow has also launched a campaign to encourage teachers and other civil servants to work in the occupied territories of Ukraine to begin building the beginnings of a Russian administration there, said the Washington Post, which obtained job offer. for those who agree to move to Kherson.

Odessa 220 km from the front line

However, “it is possible that the Russian general staff is really planning to push the offensive further west”, Jeff Hawn pointed out. Sergueï Lavrov also left this door open by ending his enumeration of Russia’s “new” intentions with an allusion to “other territories”.

220 km west of the front line is the strategic port city of Odessa. But “although we always talk about it, in the current state of the conflict, capturing this city seems like a very difficult goal to achieve,” said Jeff Hawn.

The Ukrainians have become more effective at bombing Russian supply lines, thanks to weapons provided by the West – starting with American Himar-type multiple rocket launchers. “The Russians are struggling to quickly replace equipment lost at the front and have to move cautiously,” explained Sim Tack.

For this expert, the Russian army can expand the front line in the West, but it will further deprive the defense of important supply lines. Such an offensive therefore “must have very high human and logistical costs, especially if the Ukrainians succeed in cutting the supply lines”, this analyst confirmed.

So Moscow must be prepared to make significant sacrifices just to get closer to Odessa. And then the Russian army can’t do the hard part yet. “This war shows that whenever it comes to taking an important city – like kyiv or Kharkiv for example, Russia will fail or have a lot of trouble”, remembers Sim Tack.

An excuse to keep fighting

This is why, for him, “it is necessary to use a reading grid that is more political than military to understand Sergei Lavrov’s declarations”. It is not so much a description of the war plan as “a speech intended to present a victorious face to the Russian public opinion, to maintain the myth of a victorious army”, interpreted by Sim Tack.

The time of this speech, in this respect, is not small. “These statements can be understood as Russia’s response to the proliferation of articles and statements related to the impact of the Himars in the course of the war”, said Sim Tack.

In fact, this is the first time a Russian official has mentioned these American weapons. Sergei Lavrov’s bluster is a way of claiming that these rocket launchers are somehow slowing down Russia’s advance in Ukraine, in fact quite the opposite, as Moscow is adding new territories to these purposes.

“It is also interesting to note that Sergei Lavrov justified the expansion of the objectives of the war by the arrival of these Himars in front of the Ukrainian”, added Jeff Hawn. The Russian minister actually stated that the army should push towards the West to kick these rocket launchers from a territory adjacent to Russia, because their presence on the ground in Ukraine would pose a threat to the national security of Russia. .

This justification would show “that Russia no longer knows what the war aims are and is holding on to this kind of pretext to continue fighting”, Jeff Hawn pointed out. And this is perhaps the most worrisome for the continuation of the conflict because without a clear goal to achieve, there is also no end to the war on the horizon. The statements of Sergei Lavrov, for Jeff Hawn, are proof that Moscow does not know how to get out of this conflict and has chosen the quick solution – continuing the fight – which is also the most deadly.

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