GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Russia probes Ukrainian defences in the north east, but keep watching Kherson

The situation in Ukraine continues to develop as predicted, the Russians are still active along a front roughly 280km long. Arcing from Kharkov in the north, south east through Izyum, to Rubizhne, Kreminna and Popasna in the east, then down to Horlivka in the south.  Russian forces are shelling Ukrainian positions and making probing advances and attacks along this arc but are reported to be concentrating their ground attacks in the following areas:

  • South of Izyum, where the Russians claim to be approximately 15km south of the town advancing M03 highway; and to have also advanced approximately 30km toward Barvinkove.  Both options for an advance to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk discussed in an earlier article. (Converting international support into action and what the Russians are looking at doing next).  Based on assessments of Russian strength it is likely that these advances are probes by small forces, perhaps 2-3 battalion tactical groups on each axis. Both looking for a weakness in the Ukrainian defences. If successfully blocked on one axis then the next echelon of Russian units will advance on the other. 
  • Further east, the Russians are reported to have pushed south approximately 30km towards Lyman, a rail junction and town of about 20,000 people.  Between Lyman and Izyum there are also reports of other similar advances, that appear to be either; lone battalion tactical groups or small groups of battalion tactical groups advancing on separate axis’s and supporting each other across a wide front.  The long distances being covered and the narrow frontages indicate that these operations are likely to be probing activities. 
  • Pushing west from Luhansk the Russians are likely to be holding new ground around the towns of Rubizhne, Kreminna and Popasna. The advances here are over smaller distances and holding these areas establishes a firm base for a push against Severodonetsk, a city of about 100,000 people, it is also an important industrial town with rail connectivity and useful bridges. Severodonetsk, is on the eastern bank of the Siverskyi Donets River opposite Lysychansk another city with a population of about 100,000.  

The Russians are probing on a wide front particularly south from Izyum and further east towards Lyman.  The areas that Russian ground forces are committing ground forces too rather than just artillery are relatively small. This is not surprising because the Russians have limited resources and are likely to use them carefully to probe and test the Ukrainian defences before committing a larger force. 

However, the push west to Severodonetsk via Rubizhne, Kreminna and Popasna appears to be more carefully staged and coordinated. Here the Russians are advancing methodically and carefully over short distances, not over extending themselves.  If they can take Severodonetsk, then they can attack Lysychansk on the other side of the Siverskyi Donets River. Lysychansk, is tactically significant because if captured, it provides a firm base to either push east towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk or south towards Horlivka.  

A small Ukrainian offensive, pushing east from Kharkov and Chuhuiv advancing approximately 30km east into Russian held territory has been reported. This offensive is probably aiming to cut the supply line between Belgorod and Izyum.  

Based on conventional military logic, Russian operations in the north-east are likely to start concentrating on one axis of advance soon,  either the advance south from Izyum towards Kramatorsk and Sloviansk or west from Luhansk towards Severodonsteck and Lysychansk.  This is required because the Russian lack manpower and simply do not have resources to maintain powerful forces on both axis’s.  The Russians will need to start concentrating their forces on one or other axis or they risk defeat in detail (i.e. that the Ukrainians use their full strength to defeat half the Russian force on one axis then turn and use their full force on the other half).  

An advance from the east can be supported from the relative safety of Luhansk. An advance from Izyum is possible, but entails the risk of the supply line from Belgorod that runs through recently captured and therefore more hostile territory. This factor leads to the prediction that Russia plans to commit to an advance from the east.  

Further south, in Mariupol it seems that despite their public statements the Russians are keen to ‘dig out’ the last defenders isolated in the Azovstal Steel Works. Starving this group out rather than assaulting the area makes more sense tactically.  The small remaining group of defenders should be easily contained and unable to have any further impact on the local battle and attacking this area with its reinforced concrete bunkers, underground rooms and tunnels is simply a waste of limited Russian infantry soldiers. Unless, the Russians need too. 

In recent days reports of disharmony and low morale amongst Russian soldiers near Mariupol are surfacing.  Further, there currently unsubstantiated reports of Chechen mercenaries executing Russian soldiers because units are refusing to fight and credible sources report that Russian forces are not reducing near Mariupol.  This may mean that the Ukrainian defenders are in better shape than we thought, or that local Russian forces are in worse shape and are unable to securely contain the defenders.  It could mean both.  If that is the case then we may see fighting in Mariupol continue longer than expected.  

Since, the last article Russian generals and politicians have made statements confirming a strategic intent to build a coastal corridor to Tranistria.  This concept was discussed previously when Russian forces were fighting near Mykolaiv and directly threatening Odessa.  Access to warm water ports has always been an objective of Russian leaders. Strategically, Tsarist Russia, Soviet Russia and Putin’s Russia have all worked hard to ensure that Russia has year-round access to the sea. So confirmation that Russian planers are thinking in these terms should not be a surprise and is why the fighting around Kherson is so important.  

At this time the Ukrainians and Russians are trading blows between Mykolaiv and Kherson. This area is relatively flat and Ukrainian forces are reported to be relatively strong and mobile in this area. Ukraine’s 5th Armoured Brigade, initially held back to defend Odessa is reported to be in the area.  Although, a reserve unit it has now had two months of preparation and brings about 100 tanks crewed by fresh soldiers into the battle, so it seems unlikely that the Russians will win here unless there is a significant change in operational strategy and Russian objectives in the north-east sacrificed.

And this is the key dilemma that the Russians face, they simply do not have the combat power required to do everything.  This situation is not going change. Before the war, the Russian economy was only slightly larger than Australia’s and since the start of the war it has been strangled by allied sanctions.  Ukraine on the other hand has almost unlimited resources with their NATO allies prepared to underwrite almost any expenditure.   Time is not on Russia’s side.

Yesterday, Russia attacked 56 targets across Ukraine with bomber aircraft and missiles.  This is an attempt to bluff Ukraine and NATO into believing that Russia can prevent supplies from the west reaching frontline forces by using long-range weapons.  History demonstrates that this is not likely to be successful.  During the Vietnam War, America tried to use airpower to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines and dropped a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia than were dropped on Germany during the whole of World War Two.  America was unsuccessful and Russia with vastly less resources will be too.  

In summary, Ukraine is getting stronger and Russia is getting weaker, this means that Russians need to accept the tactical situation and reduce their operational objectives quickly so they can win in a limited number of areas before the Ukrainians get too strong.  My advice would be to ‘dig in’ in the north-east and hold the gains that have been made then switch main effort to threatening Odessa.  Taking Odessa at this time is probably beyond Russia’s capability but by prioritising this area they may be able to build a force strong enough to take Mykolaiv and to realistically threaten Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro.  This move would require the Ukrainians to switch forces between fronts, moving reserves from the east to counter the threat to not only to Odessa but also to Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro.  

Tactically it is important to keep Ukrainian forces moving because at a strategic level it is likely that the Ukrainians will be planning an offensive on or near the 9th of May.  It would be sensible for the Russians to be dug-in, prepared and concentrated in key areas ready to receive that offensive rather than continuing to be dispersed and relatively weak across a wide front. 

Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.

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