Russia readies for major assault on eastern Ukraine, beginning ‘second chapter’ of war

The Russian military is beginning to refocus its assault on eastern Ukraine as Vladimir Putin named an overall military commander for the war, one with a brutal resume of killing civilians and inflicting destruction in Syria. Michael Kofman, senior fellow for Russian studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss the next phase of the war.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Russian military is beginning to refocus its assault on Eastern Ukraine, and Russia's president, vitamin Putin, has named an overall military commander for the war, one with a resume notable of killing civilians and wreaking wholesale destruction in Syria.

    We begin by looking at this change in strategy.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Southeastern Ukraine, Russian forces are moving into position. Russia says it is targeting newly arrived Ukrainian air defense systems.

    And in Mariupol, the mayor said today 10,000 civilians have been killed, Russia is deploying recently recruited conscripts.

  • Vladislav Usovich, Russian Conscript (through translator):

    What can I say? They called me up to go to war. I got a call from my school to come to the recruiting station.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Satellite images show what a senior U.S. defense official calls an eight-mile-long resupport and resupply mission into Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russians have occupied territory since 2014.

    That convoy is moving through Velykyi Burluk toward Izyum and further south, to reinforce Russians fighting in the Donbass and try and connect with territory they occupy as far west as Kherson.

  • Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President (through translator):

    This next week will be just as tense. Russian troops will move to even larger operations in the east of our state. They can use even more missiles against us, but we are preparing for their actions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Those actions in the east will be led by General Aleksandr Dvornikov, the first commander named to oversee the war in Ukraine. He led Russia's campaign of scorched earth in Syria, using starvation and indiscriminate targeting of residential neighborhoods to destroy Syrians' ability to resist.

  • John Kirby, Pentagon Press Secretary:

    We are probably turning another page in the same book of Russian brutality.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But while Russia's focus will be on the east, U.S. officials say there's no evidence that Vladimir Putin has given up on his goal to overthrow Kyiv.

    And to discuss this next phase of the war, we turn, as we often do, to Michael Kofman, research program director in the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses.

    Michael Kofman, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, 30,000 feet, is phase one of this war over, and we are waiting for face to begin?

    Michael Kofman, Center for Naval Analyses: I think that's the case, Nick.

    I think that the second phase is now beginning, although it is a bit unclear whether the Russian military is going to wait to build up, to reorganize their forces. They have taken big losses around Kyiv and in other areas. So, they have attrition units. They're trying to resupply. They're trying to reorganize.

    Are they going to send them in again piecemeal and start this campaign for the Donbass, or are they going to wait to build up? That remains one of the big questions. You see, in general, the Russian military trying to make adjustments more at that operational strategic level, including the appointment of this new commander and reworking their command-and-control.

    But it's fair to say that this is probably the end of the beginning and you're seeing a second chapter in this war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In terms of how the next phase ,the next chapter will look like, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's foreign minister, told us at NATO next week that it would look like World War II, with thousands of tanks, planes and artillery.

    A senior defense official said it would be a — quote — "knife fight."

    Regardless of whether those are right, how will this phase differ from the first phase?

  • Michael Kofman:

    So I think, in the first phase, you saw a very diffused Russian military strategy, trying to go after too many objectives at the same time, heavy urban fighting, where they were checkmated successfully by Ukrainian forces, and a really spread-out Russian effort.

    Here, you're going to see a concentration more on one front. I don't know which analogy is best, but I think you're looking at a set piece battle where the Russian military is probably going to concentrate forces against a sizable amount of Ukrainian units defending the Donbass.

    And they're likely going to try to leverage firepower and forward assaults, basically squeeze the Ukrainian units in more frontal attacks, in trying to pushing them out of the Donbass. But how this pans out is very much in question. The Russian military has been unsuccessful thus far in the first phase of the war.

    And the Ukrainian military retains a lot of advantages.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As you say, the Ukrainian military retains those advantages. Russia has struggled to make this a united front. Is there any sign that it's learned from its mistakes, including with this naming of this new commander?

  • Michael Kofman:

    Well, absolutely.

    We see a reorganization of the Russian effort. We see a concentration one front. And the main Russian problem at this stage is manpower. They have a lot of equipment. They don't necessarily have the forces. They have taken substantial losses. And they don't have big manpower reserves, because they're not conducting a national mobilization.

    On the other side, the Ukrainian military has all the advantages of manpower, of reserves, of strong levels of morale. Where they lack maybe is more an equipment and in ammunition. So these are maybe the big asymmetries of the two forces. And the battle for Donbass may not be a fast fight. It may be a longer war of attrition, with heavy use of artillery and firepower.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. has, of course, continued to send anti-tank weapons, including Javelins, and has facilitated sending takes into Ukraine. Ukraine says it needs more, and it needs faster — needs more faster.

    Are Ukraine's partners sending enough weapons in quickly enough to make a difference in this next phase?

  • Michael Kofman:

    So it looks like European countries have started to shift the kind of equipment they're likely to send to Ukraine.

    Ukraine needs armor. It needs infantry fighting vehicles. It needs artillery. It needs conventional kit, larger types of capabilities, sort of those of the kind that can equip their reserves. They have a lot of manpower. But if they're going to launch counterattacks, if they're going to go on the offensive, they're not going to be able to do it with just anti-tank guided missiles or other types of personnel-carried weapons.

    You see increasing willingness by European countries to send this kind of weaponry. It's unclear if the volumes or flow is going to be sufficient, or if it's necessarily going to make a difference in this current part of the war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And quickly, in the time we have left, it seems like there's two variables in this next phase.

    Will Russia wait to capture Mariupol before expanding its operation in the southeast, and does Russia have a deadline, May the 9th, when it celebrates the anniversary of victory of World War II?

    Do we know the answers to those questions yet?

  • Michael Kofman:

    Well, I'm not sure we do on the second.

    I'm sure, politically, they would like to be able to declare victory by May 9 if they can. But if they don't make that date, it doesn't mean that the war is somehow going to stop or the battle of the Donbass will be suspended.

    On the first one, it's clear that they're going to push from the north, and likely the southern part of this campaign may wait until they are able to achieve sufficient conquest of Mariupol, whatever that means at this point, given they have leveled of much of the city. But there's likely to be a southern acts of advance as well.

    However, at this point, it does look like they have several operational directions and are going to try to attack Ukrainian forces at least in the northern part of the Donbass without waiting for the southern fights to finish.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michael Kofman, as always, thank you very much.

  • Michael Kofman:

    Thank you.

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