The Ukrainian leadership sees the Russian war of aggression entering the “third phase” – and with it the beginning of a long-lasting conflict. What does that mean?

Mariupol is about to fall, Kharkiv is possibly about to be recaptured, heavy fighting is being fought around Sievjerodonetsk: On the 84th day of the Russian campaign, events are also happening. The speed at the front changes almost every hour, new questions arise about the Russian war drive in Ukraine and the (actual) intentions of President Vladimir Putin.

“In fact, no one can say today how long this war will last,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday. “But we are doing everything we can to liberate our country quickly. That is our priority – working every day to shorten the war.”

Because nobody in Kyiv is currently assuming that the war will end soon. The start of the “third phase” of the Russian war of aggression is now far more evident, the preparations for “a longer-term military operation”, according to the Ukrainian leadership:

From Ukraine’s perspective, Russian forces are digging in in the south and east of the country. “Russia is preparing for a longer-term military operation,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on Tuesday. The Russian troops are currently strengthening their positions in the areas they occupy in the Zaporizhia and Kherson regions in order to “switch to defensive mode if necessary”.

Things are not going according to plan for Russia

Recently, Russia had to cope with several setbacks. The advances in the Donbass have largely come to a standstill, the advance in the east of the country has been slowed down, according to Ukrainian troops, and the invaders in the Kharkiv region in the north-east have even been pushed towards the Russian border.

“You can see the implicit admission of the Russian armed forces that they are too bad to hold all positions,” said military expert Carlo Masala in the Stern podcast “Ukraine – the situation”. According to the politics professor from the Bundeswehr University in Munich, the Russian leadership has to constantly adjust its war goals because the armed forces could not achieve them. Russian troops “are far from meeting the standards that we have adopted for Russian armed forces,” Masala said. Because of the problems, the army is now concentrating on eastern Ukraine and giving up other positions.

Russia is already suffering from a high level of material and military bloodletting, the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell even spoke of “impressive losses” in the Russian army. This is subject to the proviso that the relevant information is correct, Borrell said after a meeting of EU defense ministers in Brussels on Monday. But: “If it’s true that Russia has lost 15 percent of its troops since the beginning of the war, that’s a world record for casualties for an army invading a country.” He would not dare to hypothesize how long Russia can sustain such losses.

The current developments could have brought President Putin personally to the scene. According to Western military sources, Putin makes strategic and tactical decisions “at the level of a colonel or brigadier,” the British Guardian reported on Tuesday. According to the report, the Russian president is involved in the troop movements in the Donbass, where the invaders suffered a bitter defeat last week when they repeatedly tried to cross a strategically important river in eastern Ukraine.

The setbacks and increasing resource problems are apparently leading to a certain helplessness in Russia. According to British findings, the armed forces are increasingly relying on “indiscriminate artillery fire”. According to this, Russia has only limited possibilities for capturing targets and also shys away from the risk of deploying combat aircraft over Ukrainian-controlled areas, as the Ministry of Defense in London announced on Tuesday. “In the coming weeks, Russia is likely to continue to rely heavily on massive artillery strikes as it attempts to revive its Donbass offensive.”

In addition, the Russian army has significant problems with supplies and troop reinforcements. The British Ministry of Defense announced on Wednesday that Russia had to deploy many auxiliary troops to break down the Ukrainian resistance, including thousands of fighters from the autonomous republic of Chechnya. “The combat deployment of such diverse personnel demonstrates Russia’s significant resource problems in Ukraine and likely contributes to a patchy command that continues to hamper Russian operations.”

An optimistic-sounding forecast

What follows? So could President Putin still order a general mobilization to send fresh troops to the front? The step was already expected for May 9, the “Day of Victory” in Russia, but ultimately did not materialize. Or is Russia pulling back further?

A Russian military expert, who surprised state television – possibly with the permission of the Kremlin – with an unusually pessimistic assessment of the war, fueled speculation. The Ukrainian armed forces are far from disintegrating, Michael Khodaryonok said on a talk show on Monday, while Russia is isolated in the world by the war. Moscow must find a way out of the situation “that the whole world is against us,” the former general staff officer demanded on the show.

However, the Ukrainian leadership does not expect the fighting to end any time soon. The peace negotiations with Russia have been suspended for the time being, Kyiv and Moscow announced on Tuesday. Ukraine accuses Russia of not making any concrete proposals to end the war.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s defense minister reiterated that Moscow wants to create “a land corridor between Russia and Crimea” and occupy “the entire south of Ukraine.” Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Currently, the Kremlin’s main efforts are focused on “encircling and destroying” Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east of the country, he continued. There they continued their offensives “along the entire line of contact”.

The head of the Ukrainian military intelligence service, on the other hand, predicted in an extremely optimistic sounding prognosis that the war would end with a Russian defeat by the end of the year. There will be a turnaround on the fronts by mid-August at the latest, Major General Kyrylo Budanov told the British broadcaster Sky News on Saturday. “The turning point comes in the second half of August.” By the end of the year, Ukraine will regain control of all its territories, including the Crimean Peninsula.

The secret service official denied that the Russian armed forces were often said to be strong. “That’s a myth.” The Russian army is “just a horde of people with guns”.

Sources: “The Guardian”, situation report of the British Ministry of Defense (Tuesday / Wednesday), “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, “Der Tagesspiegel”, “Frankfurter Rundschau”, “”, n-tv, “Der Spiegel”, “Merkur “, with material from the news agencies DPA and AFP