Analysis. Putin and Zelensky went to the front with the same goal: to overcome the weariness of those who fight.

Whatever happens after the Donbass knot will be the new phase of war

We are used to imagining that when the pitched battle approaches, the leader must show up in front of the troops, motivate them, remind them what they’re fighting for. In less epic fashion and without the rousing soundtrack, this is what the Russian and Ukrainian presidents are doing in recent days.

Zelensky said he was deeply moved by the Ukrainian resistance, traveled to the border with Belarus to praise the border guards and asked his people to hold out a little longer so that preparations can be finalized for the much-touted spring counteroffensive. Putin visited the southern and Lugansk defensive positions and awarded medals to those he called the “defenders of the motherland” against NATO’s attempts to destroy Russia.

Two different approaches, but with the same goal: to overcome the fatigue of those fighting at the front. And that’s not much of a victory in the strict sense of the word, because by now we’ve understood that the war in Ukraine has very little to do with romantic ideals, despite the trenches and grand declarations that recall 19th-century wars. We are in a very delicate phase, and the resilience of the armed forces is also tied to the psychological motivation of the combatants at the front.

After all, we have been reading headlines for months about how close the Russian forces are to collapse, about the constant risk that the Kremlin’s military apparatus will break down at any moment. But the collapse has not happened, and, at least at this point, doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight, despite the tens of thousands of dead. Accordingly, at least two conclusions can be drawn from the two leaders’ visits.

First of all: at the moment, the Donbass remains the Gordian knot of the conflict. The Ukrainian president chose to show up in Avdiivka, where the Russians attempted to break through during the siege of Bakhmut by pounding it with heavy artillery fire for days, with little to show for it. Since 2014, the town has been one of what could be called small border towns, a short distance from the informal border between Ukraine and the separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk.

For now, Avdiivka is holding out, even though just a short distance away the dead are no longer even being counted, and even though families with children are being forced to evacuate. But the defensive belt the Ukrainian General Staff has built around Bakhmut must hold strong, and a visit by the leader serves precisely to stress this simple concept, summed up by some analysts with a phrase that sounds like a pithy saying: “If the Donbass collapses, all of Ukraine collapses.”

On the other hand, the Putin-led Russian delegation showed up in Luhansk, which is the separatist region that is almost entirely controlled by Russian troops (the percentage estimates range from 88 to 97 percent). “You have restored freedom to a people oppressed by the Nazi regime in Kiev,” Putin said according to Moscow news agencies, and, as in Mariupol a few weeks ago, he visited some buildings rebuilt by the occupying administration.

For now, his men are holding the region firmly, but any breakthrough by the other side towards Severodonetsk or Lysychansk would seriously endanger the Russian territorial gains. That is why they’ve been digging trenches, erecting new fortifications and preparing three, perhaps four defensive lines within a few dozen kilometers of each other.

The defensive lines are the reason behind Putin’s second visit, to the eastern Kherson area. The Ukrainians make no secret of their desire to cut in half the Russian forces in the south, and, in order to do so, it will be crucial to take and hold the territories east of Kherson. And we can draw a second conclusion from all this: the attackers are entrenched in defense, but the defenders are hesitant to advance. Soon this wait will end and the war in Ukraine will enter a new phase.

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