Russian Army Seeks Encirclement in East; Ukraine: Russians 'Exhausted'

The war in Ukraine has taken a deadly new turn. A top advisor to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky announced on Tuesday that "the enemy has begun the active phase of an attack in the east of Ukraine."

That advisor, Alexey Arestovich, said the aim of the Russian army's renewed offensive is to "surround our troops in the area of Izyum," a medium-sized city currently under Russian occupation.

After Russia's initial attack failed to capture the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Colonel General Alexander Rudskoy announced on March 25 that the invading forces would pull back from areas in the north of Ukraine in order to focus their efforts on "liberation of the Donbas," Ukraine's eastern region.

Despite some initial skepticism from outside observers, including U.S. president Joe Biden, Russia did remove all of its ground forces from the areas around Kyiv and Chernihiv. Several of the units appear to have relocated further east, where, according to Arestovich, a major Russian offensive has already begun.

A British Defense Intelligence map shows the situation on the ground.

Arestovich laid out three possible outcomes of the renewed fighting: "The first is that the Russians, having exhausted all of their operational reserves, will conduct tactical actions in order to hold onto the territory they currently occupy. The second is that they can leave our territory. And the third is that they can return to peace talks."

Russian officials agree that a new phase of the war is beginning, but their analysis of its likely developments differs radically from that of their Ukrainian counterparts.

"We will surround the Ukrainian soldiers in a pocket in the east," Alexander Kazakov, who until 2017 served as a top advisor to the former head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told Newsweek. "They can either give up, or they can die."

"After that," Kazakov added, "the third phase will finally begin: the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine."

Despite the optimism of Moscow-based figures like Kazakov, neutral observers of the conflict are more skeptical about Russia's chances for a major breakthrough. Franz-Stefan Gady, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, sees several opportunities for Ukraine to successfully fight back.

"Ukraine will try to disrupt Russian ground lines of communications via raid, localized attacks and long-range artillery fire, loitering munitions, and possibly air strikes," Gady told Newsweek. "The goal is to disrupt the supply of Russian front line troops in order to slow down their advance and reduce their fire power."

He said that if Russia's eastern offensive is to succeed, it would need to demonstrate significantly greater logistical competence than its attempts to take Kyiv did.

"The Russian Armed Forces are still in need of anywhere from 400-600 trucks to sustain their artillery barrages against Ukrainian positions each day," Gady says. "Having said that, the railroad network in Donbas will be a major logistical advantage for the Russians in comparison to the first phase of the war."

Much attention has been paid to Ukraine's continuing resistance in the southern port city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian marines and fighters of the Azov battalion remain in control of the besieged city's Azovstal steel plant.

Russian Soldiers Mariupol
Two Russian soldiers patrol in the Mariupol drama theatre, bombed last March 16, in Mariupol on April 12, 2022, This picture was taken during a trip organized by the Russian military. (Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

The battle there has diverted several key Russian battalion tactical groups away from other fronts. But even if Mariupol falls in the coming days or weeks, Gady is skeptical that it will provide much of a boost to the actual fighting strength of Russian forces.

"Finally seizing Mariupol would be major propaganda boost for Russia," Gady said, but he noted that that after so many weeks of intense fighting, the units currently occupied there "would be severely understrength."

"So I don't think freeing these forces will have a huge military impact on Russian military operations in Donbas," he added.