(CNN) — The war in Ukraine will soon be three months old. Russian forces remain a long way from the minimum targets set by President Vladimir Putin, and in many areas the front lines are beginning to look static. But after weeks of heavy bombardment, the Ukrainians’ defensive lines in the east are also degraded.
Essentially, two battlefields are emerging. The Russians are adding combat power to their campaign to take the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. The Ukrainians try both to hold them back and to cut them off. It is a three-dimensional chessboard of military calculation. And the natural borders drawn by a river in eastern Ukraine are already affecting the progress of each side.
Russian forces have taken territory, but in modest numbers. Many of their gains, especially in the south, came in the early days of the invasion, and they have tried to consolidate them. At the epicenter of the conflict – in the industrial belt of the Luhansk region – they have resorted to widespread bombing.
As one Ukrainian official put it: “The Russians do not change tactics: they destroy the cities and only then enter the scorched earth.”
Russian ground forces are—for now—taking no more than incremental territory, while anecdotal reports speak of low discipline and morale among some units.
Russia still has just under 100 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) in Ukraine, according to US officials, and another 20 across the border. Each BTG has about 1,000 troops, but US officials say many of them have been demoted after more than two months of conflict.
In Luhansk and Donetsk – the targets of Russia’s “special military operation” – no town has yet fallen to Russian hands beyond Mariupol. That may be about to change after weeks of relentless bombing of the Luhansk industrial belt, a chain of cities that includes Severodonetsk and Rubizhne. It now appears that the Ukrainian resistance in Rubizhne has effectively ended. Behind is a landscape of rubble, without water, energy or people.
Its occupants — mainly Chechen fighters and militia from the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic — inherit a vacant lot. But the loss of Rubizhne makes neighboring Severodonetsk, which was a city of 100,000 before the invasion and where 15,000 now hide in basements, more vulnerable. And if Ukrainian resistance there is no longer tenable, new defensive lines will be needed to prevent a Russian advance to the west.
However, the Russian offensive from the north has been much less successful. That’s where the meandering Siverskyi Donets comes into play. The river rises in Russia and empties into the Ukraine, forming swamps, floodplains and elbow-shaped lakes, cutting through chalk cliffs as it goes. In other words: a nightmare for a military assault.
The Russians have tried, and apparently failed, to place several pontoons across the river in an attempt to encircle the Ukrainian troops. Satellite images analyzed by CNN show that at least three bridges were destroyed this week and that the Russians suffered heavy losses.
Further west, the Russians appear to have crossed the river, but it is too early to tell if their numbers are sustainable. In the last month, since occupying Izium, they have made only limited progress despite the tense Ukrainian lines. And its strategic objective—Sloviansk—has defenses in depth.
To maintain an offensive in this area, the Russian army needs supplies, and they must come from across the border. The supply line runs from Belgorod to the Ukrainian railway hub of Kupiansk and further south.
Ukrainian forces appear determined to disrupt this funnel and have made progress in retaking territory to the north and east of Kharkiv. First of all, this has reduced the Russian fire on the city itself. And in some places the Ukrainian units are now within sight of the Russian border, and have the Russian supply lines within artillery range.
A geolocated video by CNN showed several high-end Russian T90M tanks being destroyed as Ukrainian units advanced east towards the Siverskyi Donets. They now control the town of Staryi Saltiv, according to a CNN crew that was in the deserted town on Thursday.
Once again, the river is a natural obstacle, and in this area it could hinder the Ukrainian advance. But the Ukrainian counteroffensive has already prompted the Russians to withdraw some units to protect their western flank and hold up to 20 BTG in Belgorod.
As Mick Ryan, a former US major general, puts it, the Ukrainians “have placed Russian commanders on the ‘horns of a dilemma’ as they slowly exhaust their combat power in the east.”
But Ryan isn’t expecting a more ambitious Ukrainian offensive, which would drain already depleted resources. “The Ukrainians will probably continue their ongoing ‘bites’ on the Russians to recapture their territory, rather than a general offensive on all fronts,” tweeted.
Southern Ukraine: A very different war
The picture is less dynamic in the south, where the front lines have moved little. The Russians still control an important belt of farmland in the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions, but their efforts to push north have been sporadic.
In Kherson, for example, public unrest has subsided, in part because an estimated 45% of the region’s population has left.
The Russians continue to launch cruise missile attacks on Odessa and other coastal regions, with little purpose beyond terrorizing civilians and little “operational design” in military parlance.
Any effort to attack the city from land or sea seems highly unlikely, especially since the sinking of the Russian guided missile cruiser, the Moskva.
US intelligence rules out any imminent possibility that Russian forces will attempt to seize the entire coastline of Ukraine. That would likely require a full mobilization inside Russia, a step Putin has so far not ordered.
Instead, the Russians seem intent on consolidating their control over a land corridor from the border to Crimea and trying to “integrate” Kherson into the “Russian world” by introducing Russian passports, the ruble, and a puppet administration.
But their proxies govern areas in unfortunate conditions, with health and public services seriously deteriorated. And there is plenty of evidence that Russian units are treating the region like a candy store, stealing everything from tractors to museum artifacts. Still no serious effort to rule
A war of attrition
Few expect a coup from either side in the coming months. A war of attrition seems more likely as weapons supplied by the United States and its allies tip the scales on the battlefield. The first American howitzers are already at the front.
US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines stated this week that “because both Russia and Ukraine believe they can continue to advance militarily, we don’t see a viable negotiation path, at least in the short term.”
“The uncertain nature of the battle, which is turning into a war of attrition, combined with the reality that Putin is facing a mismatch between his ambitions and Russia’s current conventional military capabilities, likely means that the coming months could see us move down a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory path.
Perhaps the biggest risk for Ukraine is that a war like this — on the same fronts we see today — would be sustainable, if harsh, for Russia. However, it would hit the Ukrainian economy, which is already expected to contract 45% this year, according to the World Bank.
Putin could then wait for an opportunity to take another bite out of a country he believes has no right to exist.
There is an additional risk – not yet evident – that the West’s sense of urgency to back Ukraine with money and weapons will diminish if the conflict stalls. Let us remember Syria.
But the course of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already defied most expectations. The time is coming when critical decisions—or mistakes—on either side can influence its outcome.
In the words of the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, “The opportunity to insure against defeat is in our own hands, but the opportunity to defeat the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”