Pentagon warns conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region could be a ‘knife fight’ 

At least 50 people were killed and 98 injured Friday at the Kramatorsk train station in eastern Ukraine, according to Ukrainian officials, in what they said was a Russian missile attack while evacuees were waiting to escape an expected Russian onslaught in the region.

A missile fragment found near the train station was inscribed with the words “for the children,” in Russian. “There were people everywhere. Torn-off limbs, flesh, bone, pieces of people everywhere,” said Yelena Khalenmonva, who heard the blasts from inside the station.

The Pentagon said that in recent days, the Russian military has put thousands of additional troops into eastern Ukraine.

On the struggle for eastern Ukraine in the Donbas, a senior U.S. defense official said Friday, “This will be a knife fight. This could be very ugly and very bloody,” as both sides are familiar with the terrain, population centers and access routes. 

Russia invaded the area in 2014, and Ukrainian and Russian forces have been confronting each other there ever since.   

A soldier sites a rifle.
U.S. Army Sgt. Blayne Adams of 64th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division looks down the Leopold Mark 5 HD scope mounted to his M110 semi-automatic sniper system during training at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, in March. The unit deployed to Europe to reassure NATO allies, deter aggression against NATO members, and train with the host-nation forces.

It is becoming the main scene of battle in the country after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failed attempt to take the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

“The Russians and the Ukrainians have been focused on the Donbas for eight years, and [it’s been] for eight years that the Ukrainians have been able to stymie Russia’s larger objectives in the Donbas,” the official said. “But the fighting has been bloody, it’s been stiff. And it’s been pretty consistent for years.”   

After the failure of the Kyiv campaign, the Russians are moving units to the east and beginning to feed them into the fight for the Donbas. “This will be a knife fight,” the official said. “This could be very bloody and very ugly.”  

The Russians are limiting their geographic aims, but they still have a lot of combat power available. This could go on for a long time,” the official said.   

The Russian units that were attacking Kyiv have withdrawn and are refitting in Belarus and western Russia. The units are making their way to Russian towns of Belgorod and Valuyki, which are near the border with Ukraine and the northern part of the Donbas region.  

Airstrikes follow this new situation, with Russia launching between 240 and 250 sorties over the past day with the overwhelming weight and focus of their strikes aimed at Mariupol and the Joint Force Operations area. Refitting the Russian units is going to take some time, the official said.   

Some of the units that attacked Kyiv were severely mauled, with many battalion tactical groups experiencing a combined personnel and equipment reduction of 30% and others hurt even more. “We’ve seen indications of some units that are literally … eradicated — there’s just nothing left at the BTG except a handful of troops and maybe a small number of vehicles,” the official said.   

Army vehicles line up.
Dozens of vehicles and equipment pieces are staged for transport at the Army Prepositioned Stocks-2 Zutendaal worksite in Belgium, March 23. These vehicles are tapped to directly support U.S. soldiers deployed to Europe. The 405th Army Field Support Brigade personnel at Zutendaal, both the U.S. and Belgium, have worked hard over the last few weeks to prepare thousands of APS-2 vehicles and equipment pieces for issue.

It may take some time for these units to be reconstituted, and this could be further complicated by continuing failures in logistics. “We believe that they have not solved all of their logistics and sustainment problems and that those problems did not just exist inside Ukraine,” he said. “They existed outside Ukraine and still do exist. And so, our sense is that they will likely not be able to reinforce the eastern part of the country with any great speed.”  

But the Russians have a lot of manpower. In May, the next class of conscripts will report for duty, and officials have indications that the Russians have begun to mobilize reservists. “There’s some indications that what they’re hoping to do is to recruit upwards of 60,000 troops during this mobilization phase,” the official said. 

Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine cratered last month after Russian state news channels were blocked in Europe and restricted globally. But in recent weeks, China has emerged as a potent outlet for Kremlin disinformation, researchers say, portraying Ukraine and NATO as the aggressors and sharing false claims about neo-Nazi control of the Ukrainian government.

With over a billion followers on Facebook alone, China’s state-controlled channels offer Russian President Vladimir Putin a powerful megaphone for shaping global understanding of the war — often called a “special operation” in line with Kremlin rhetoric.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, researchers say, Chinese channels have touted the false claim that the United States runs bioweapons labs in Ukraine, have asserted that Ukrainian neo-Nazis bombed a children’s hospital which was in fact bombed by Russian troops, and have suggested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was being manipulated by U.S. billionaire George Soros.

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