Russia’s new attacks in eastern Ukraine are what the Pentagon believes to be a prelude to a major offensive in the Donbas region, a senior U.S. Defense Department official said Tuesday.
The attacks, southwest of Donetsk and south of Izyum, have come as Russia continues to add to its forces in Ukraine and resupply those already inside the country, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence findings.
The Russians inserted two battalion tactical groups into Ukraine in the last day, to increase the number to 78, the official said. Russian battalions vary in size from about 800 to 1,000 troops.
Both Ukrainian and Russian officials acknowledged Tuesday the war had entered a new phase. Ukraine’s military said “the occupiers made an attempt to break through our defenses along nearly the entire frontline,” while Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said the goal was “full liberation” in Donetsk and Luhansk.
The Russians, who invaded Feb. 24, have faced spirited, effective resistance from Ukrainian troops and have lost about 25% of the combat force Vladimir Putin deployed, the official said.
The renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine has involved Russian ground units supported by artillery, and about 80% of Russia’s artillery forces have been available for the fight, the official said.
While outnumbered and outgunned, the Ukrainians will not be easily defeated in the east, the official said. The Ukrainians know the terrain and have good supply lines and the ability to reinforce and resupply their forces, the official said.
Russian pilots, the official said, have shown a reluctance to fly into Ukrainian airspace, fearing attack from effective air defenses.
The Russians appear trying to learn from the failures they had in supporting their invading forces that the Ukrainians shredded, the official said. They have moved supplies in advance of their main assault.