Officials said the United States has seen “some evidence” of an improvement in Russia’s ability to combine air and ground operations, as well as its ability to resupply forces in the field.
A senior US defense official said progress was “slow and erratic,” allowing Russian forces to advance “for several kilometers or so” each day.
But the United States appreciates that Russia is trying to learn from its mistakes early on, as tanks and armored columns ran out of food and fuel, leaving it easy prey for Ukrainian hit-and-run tactics.
Russia has placed command and control elements near its border with eastern Ukraine, according to a senior NATO official, indicating that they are trying to repair the communications and coordination failures observed in the attack on Kyiv.
Before the invasion began on February 24, Russia massed 125 to 130 battalion tactical groups, known as BTGs, around Ukraine and near Kyiv in particular, but when the fighting began, Russian military leaders showed little ability to get them to fight as one.
There are 92 BTGS in the country now, with another 20 across the border in Russia, according to a senior defense official.
“The attacks are somewhat better coordinated, but in small formations. Company-sized units backed by helicopters,” a European defense official said. “The lowest level of mutual support. In NATO, this would be key.”
However, Western officials familiar with the latest intelligence say that even if Russia learns key lessons from its systemic failures in the first phase of the conflict, it is not clear whether Moscow will be able to implement the necessary changes to control the Donbass region.
Its army suffered heavy losses in both manpower and equipment and officials believe that other equipment transferred from different parts of Ukraine has likely not been fully repaired yet. Many combat units gathered soldiers who did not fight or train together.
“I don’t know how many lessons they can actually implement,” said the senior NATO official. “It’s not a simple thing.” “You’re not just moving tanks and people and saying, ‘Now get back to the fight! ”
American and Western officials largely agree with the assessment that a few weeks is not enough time for Russia to reconfigure its forces from the first phase of the campaign – which took place across large swathes of Ukrainian territory and led to the loss of thousands of Russians. Soldiers – and they believe that Moscow will continue to gradually throw additional forces into the conflict.
US officials have said Russian President Vladimir Putin is under pressure to prove he can achieve victory, and eastern Ukraine is where he is likely to be able to do so quickly. US intelligence objections suggest that Putin is focusing on May 9, Russia’s “victory day,” but even if he makes some kind of statement at the time, officials say it is unlikely to herald the end of his war on Ukraine.
“I think that date is likely to be a date when something is announced, but they are moving forward with the rest of the campaign,” the senior NATO official said.
US and Western officials have warned that Russia’s renewed offensive, focused on penetrating Ukraine’s defenses in the east using troops and materiel withdrawn from across the north of the country, has not yet fully begun. Russia continues the Mariupol barrage in the south, but in the Donbass its advance was more gradual.
Officials expect that the second phase of the campaign, focused on eastern Ukraine, will turn out in a very different way from the initial offensive, which focused largely on capturing major urban areas. The dry, grassy plain is not uniform throughout the area, but in some places you may prefer more traditional tank warfare. Unlike the rest of the country, Ukraine has been battling Russian-backed separatists there from trenches dug since 2014.
“This renewed effort in the Donbass, we will see Russia launch a campaign that I think will look a lot like conventional battlefields, really going back to WWI and WWII: much heavier equipment, different terrain, much more open,” said the senior NATO official.
Another NATO official said Russia is “a lot more sticking to classic Russian military doctrine this time around” – in part because proximity to Russia’s borders allows Russia to maintain shorter, more efficient supply lines. Russian forces offered more coordinated air support to troops on the ground in Donbass and “put troops at less risk to minimize losses.”
Western officials expect Russia to launch a three-dimensional attack to try to isolate and defeat Ukrainian forces with pincers.
“Fighting concerns in the East are multifaceted,” Representative Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois, told CNN. “First of all, this is better ground for the Russians. Second, the shorter supply lines, the lessons learned, and the fact that you have a very angry Putin trying to rehabilitate the Russian military to the rest of the world.”
One of the main advantages of Russia remains the huge amount of military power and equipment that the Kremlin committed in this war. Last week, the United States estimated that about 75% of the forces it had prepared for this invasion were still intact, and the Kremlin indicated a willingness to allocate as many forces as needed for their stated goal of controlling the Donbass region.
One source told CNN that it has a military “mass” willing to throw it at the target until it’s complete, noting that Putin showed complete indifference about the number of Russian troops killed in the process.
There is no guaranteed result
However, despite the military advantages that Russia still had, it is unclear whether this was sufficient to guarantee the battlefield success that they failed to achieve around Kyiv and elsewhere.
A defense official told CNN that Russian units are in a worse position than expected, according to a US assessment. “Some of the tanks have a driver and no crew,” the official said. “Some (armored personnel carriers) there is no one behind.”
The official noted that some units have reduced their strength to 70%, which is the line at which the Western combat doctrine states that the unit is no longer effective in combat. The Russians used poorly maintained and outdated equipment to re-equip their BTGs, confusing modern and non-modern equipment that could reduce their ability to effectively maneuver on the battlefield.
At every step, Russia’s attack on the Donbass region encounters the same stiff Ukrainian resistance that halted their advance toward Kyiv, with one notable difference. Ukrainian forces fought Russian-backed separatists for years in this area, giving them plenty of time to dig into fortified defensive positions.
A source familiar with the situation told CNN that the Ukrainians are incorporating new weapons and vehicles from other countries, including the United States, and continue to take huge losses.
The source said that as Russia expands its supply lines to Donbass, it will become more vulnerable.
US officials also continue to take note of the composition of the Russian military, including Putin’s move to extend conscription and draw the next wave of recruits—many of whom have long remained inactive.
This indicates that Putin is “getting off the bottom,” the source familiar with the situation said.
“Putin faces a dilemma. His power is declining in terms of capacity and his status as individuals is one of his biggest problems. Access to the reserves is not going to help… In fact, I would suggest that this would hurt. Perhaps,” said CNN military analyst and retired Lieutenant General Mark Hurtling. Providing ‘corpses’ but not trained soldiers will make a difference.”
And the moral issues that exhausted the Russian forces still exist.
“We have some early indications that while the recruits start in high spirits because they were partying with Russian propaganda, it didn’t take long before that morale waned once they got into the fight and faced the Ukrainian resistance,” he said. A senior defense official Thursday in a back-call with reporters.
Finally, the weather may hinder Russian tanks. The mud might force them to cling to the roads, leaving them vulnerable to Ukrainian forces, as was the case in the Kyiv suburbs. Capturing urban areas in any war is a challenge – guns are preferred.
“I don’t think the war will end in the short term,” said the senior NATO official.