By Zachary Cohen, Oren Liebermann, Jim Sciutto and Katie Bo Lillis, CNN
Russian forces have made some progress in Moscow’s renewed assault on eastern Ukraine, according to US and NATO officials, as their military tries to fix the myriad problems that plagued the early weeks of the invasion.
The US has seen “some evidence” of improvement in Russia’s ability to combine air and ground operations, as well as its capacity for resupplying forces in the field, officials say.
The progress is “slow and uneven,” a senior US defense official said, allowing Russian forces to advance only “several kilometers or so” each day.
But the US assesses that Russia is trying to learn from the mistakes it made early on, where columns of tanks and armor ran out of food and fuel, leaving them easy prey to Ukrainian hit-and-run tactics.
Russia has placed command and control elements near its border with eastern Ukraine, according to a senior NATO official, a sign they are attempting to fix the communications and coordination failures observed in the attack on Kyiv.
Before the invasion began on February 24, Russia amassed 125 to 130 battalion tactical groups, known as BTGs, around Ukraine and near Kyiv in particular, but when the fighting began, Russia’s military leaders showed little ability to have them fight as one.
There are 92 BTGS in country now, with another 20 just across border in Russia, according to the senior defense official.
“The attacks are somewhat better coordinated but with small formations. Company size units with helicopter support,” a European defense official said. “The lowest level of mutual support. In NATO this would be basic stuff.”
Still, western officials familiar with the latest intelligence say even if Russia has learned key lessons from its systemic failures in the first stage of the conflict, it’s not clear that Moscow will be able to implement the necessary changes to dominate in the Donbas region.
Its military has suffered heavy losses in both manpower and equipment and officials believe that other equipment relocated from different parts of Ukraine likely isn’t fully repaired yet. Many of the fighting units have cobbled together soldiers who have never fought or trained together.
“I don’t know how many lessons they can actually operationalize. It’s not a simple thing,” said the senior NATO official. “You don’t just move tanks and personnel and say, ‘Now go back into the fight!'”
US and Western officials largely agree with the assessment that a few weeks is not enough time for Russia to reconstitute its forces from the first phase of the campaign — which took place across broad swaths of Ukrainian territory and led to the loss of thousands of Russian soldiers – and believe Moscow will keep throwing additional forces into the conflict piecemeal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been under pressure to demonstrate he can show a victory, and eastern Ukraine is the place where he is most likely to be able to quickly do that, US officials say. US intelligence intercepts suggest Putin is focused on May 9, Russia’s “Victory Day,” but even if he makes some sort of declaration then, officials say it will be unlikely to mark the end of his war on Ukraine.
“I think that date’s likely to be a date where something is declared, but then they move on with the rest of the campaign,” the senior NATO official said.
A more conventional fight
US and western officials caution that Russia’s renewed assault, focused on breaking through Ukrainian defenses in the east using troops and materiel withdrawn from across the north of the country, is not yet fully underway. Russia continues to barrage Mariupol in the south, but in Donbas, its advances have been far more incremental.
Officials anticipate the second phase of the campaign, focused on eastern Ukraine, will in some ways unfold quite differently from the initial assault that largely focused on capturing major urban areas. The dry and grassy plain isn’t homogenous across the region, but in places may favor more conventional tank warfare. And unlike in the rest of the country, Ukraine has been fighting Russian-backed separatists there from dug-in trench positions since 2014.
“This renewed effort in Donbas, we’ll see Russia mounting a campaign that I think is going to look a lot like conventional fights, really going back to World War I and World War II: much heavier equipment, different terrain, much more open,” said the senior NATO official.
Russia is “sticking much more to a classic Russian military doctrine this time,” said another NATO official – in part because the proximity to the Russian border allows Russia to maintain shorter, more efficient supply lines. Russian forces have offered more coordinated air support to troops on the ground in Donbas and have been “putting troops in less danger to keep casualties lower.”
Western officials expect Russia to launch a three-pronged offensive to try to isolate and defeat the Ukrainian forces in a pincer.
“The concerns of the fight in the east are multifold,” Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democratic from Illinois, told CNN. “First of all, this is better terrain for the Russians. Second, shorter supply lines, lessons learned, and the fact that you’ve got a very angry Putin who is trying to rehabilitate, I think, the Russian military to the rest of the world.”
One of Russia’s key advantages remains the sheer size of the military force and the equipment the Kremlin has committed to this war. Last week, the US assessed about 75% of the forces it prepped for this invasion to be still intact, and the Kremlin has shown a willingness to commit as many forces as needed for their stated objective of controlling the Donbas region.
It has a military “mass” that it is willing to throw at the objective until it is complete, one source told CNN, noting Putin has shown a complete indifference to how many Russian forces are killed in the process.
No guaranteed outcome
Still, despite the military advantages Russia still has, it’s unclear whether it’s enough to guarantee them the battlefield success that they failed to achieve around Kyiv and elsewhere.
Russian units are in worse shape than expected, according to a US assessment, a defense official told CNN. “Some tanks have a driver and no crew,” the official said. “Some (armored personnel carriers) have no one out the back.”
Some of the units are down to 70% strength, the official noted, which is the line where western combat doctrine states that a unit can no longer be combat effective. The Russians have used poorly maintained and outdated equipment to refit their BTGs, mixing modernized and unmodernized equipment that could degrade their ability to effectively maneuver on the battlefield.
At each step, Russia’s attack on the Donbas region faces the same stiff Ukrainian resistance that stopped their advance toward Kyiv, with one notable difference. Ukrainian forces have fought Russian-backed separatists for years in this region, offering them ample time to dig into fortified defense positions.
The Ukrainians are integrating new weapons and vehicles received from other countries, including the US, and continuing to exact a heavy toll, one source familiar with the situation told CNN.
And as Russia has to extend its supply lines into Donbas, they will become more vulnerable, the source said.
US officials also continue to take note of the composition of the Russian army, including Putin’s move to extend enlistments and pull up the next wave of conscripts — many of whom have been inactive for a long time.
This suggests Putin is “scraping bottom of the barrel,” the source familiar with the situation said.
“Putin faces a conundrum. His force is declining in capability and his personnel status is one of his biggest problems. Reaching into the reserves aren’t going to help … in fact, I’d suggest that’s going to hurt. It may provide ‘bodies’ but not trained soldiers who will make a difference,” CNN military analyst and retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said.
And the morale issues that have bedeviled Russian forces are still present.
“We have some early indications that while the conscripts start out with high morale because they’ve been feasting on Russian propaganda, it doesn’t take very long before that morale is sapped once they get put into combat and face Ukrainian resistance,” said the senior defense official Thursday on a background call with reporters.
Finally, the weather may hamper Russian tanks. Mud may force them to stick to the roads, leaving them vulnerable to Ukrainian forces, as was the case on the outskirts of Kyiv. And taking urban areas in any war is challenging – and favors the defender.
“I don’t think the war is going to be over in the near term,” said the senior NATO official.
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CNN’s Natasha Bertrand and Alex Marquardt contributed reporting