GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Ukraine withdraws from Severodonetsk and Lysychansk claimed by Russia, great victories? No, Russia is still losing

Since the last article, the Ukrainians have withdrawn from Severodonetsk and the Russians claim to hold Lysychansk.  Although trading ground for time must hurt for the Ukrainians, it is a sensible tactical move. It preserves Ukrainian soldier’s lives, husbanding resources for future battles.  The Russians are now attacking Lysychansk, three kilometres west of Severodonetsk and there are Russian reports that the city has been taken.  It is unlikely the Lysychansk will hold for a significant period of time because the Russians are advancing on the city from the south, an axis of assault that is not obstructed by the Severskyi-Donets River. 

Further, Lysychansk is at the eastern tip of a 50-kilometre salient that starts at Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. The salient’s width, or the area the Ukraininans need to withdraw within, is reducing.  Now, after weeks of painfully slow progress pushing north from Poposna the Russians are reported to be close enough to shell the T103 highway, the main road between Slovainsk and Lysychansk.  It is likely that with time the Russians will close this salient making a long defence of Lysychansk high-risk.  Therefore, it is sensible that the Ukrainians are withdrawing west towards their prepared defensive positions around Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. 

The other Russian axes of advance from Izyum, south east on the M03 highway and via Barvinkove towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk are not making significant progress.  When the Russians do get to the Sloviansk and Kramatorsk advancing either from the north or east, the battle for these cities will be tough because they are a large urban areas, on high ground that the Ukrainians have spent weeks fortifying.  

Tactically, the Ukrainian withdrawal is minor and predictable, it does not indicate that the Russians are taking the initiative. Instead, it seems to be the next logical step in a planned defensive battle.  The real questions at this stage don’t relate to the current battle but rather to the ‘next’ battle.  In coming days or weeks the Russians will push in on the Lsysychansk salient and the Ukrainians will withdraw to well-prepared positions at Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. This is a slow battle of attrition wearing both sides down. The questions are is which side will ‘fail’ first; and more importantly what happens after they do? 

Evidence indicates that the Russians may ‘fail’ first and that their ground offensive could culminate relatively soon, in a recent interview with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson summed up NATO assessments when he said that within weeks “Russia could come to a point when there is no longer any forward momentum because it has exhausted its resources”.  Even within Russia, military blogger Yuri Kotyenok stated in a recent post that “Russia does not have enough physical strength in the zone of the special military operation in Ukraine”. The reasons why the Russian army is running out of resource are discussed in a recent article on the ‘War on the Rocks’ blog. Authors Michael Kofman and Rob Lee provide excellent analysis of the structural issues the Russian army is struggling to manage.  In summary, they argue that the Russian army is designed for short high-intensity operations and cannot sustain a long-term war of attrition, stating “The Russian military doesn’t have the numbers available to easily adjust or to rotate forces if a substantial amount of combat power gets tied down in a war.”

Essentially, Putin is stuck in a tough position it is becoming obvious that politically he cannot call for a full mobilisation and instead is working hard to generate combat power; using local forces from Donetsk and Luhansk, hiring mercenaries and as the Institute for the Study of War reported on 26 June 2022, “The Kremlin continues to manipulate Russian legislation to carry out “covert mobilization” to support operations in Ukraine without conducting full mobilization”.  Further, in recent days the Russia Duma (parliament) was asked to consider a range of measures to fast track the repair and replacement of damaged equipment. Putin’s standing army was not designed for a long war of attrition and faced with significant economic sanctions the Russian military cannot sustain a long campaign. Therefore it seems relatively certain that unless Putin is able to win political support for a declaration of war and a full mobilisation, he does not have the manpower to conquer much more of Ukraine. It is very likely that ‘on the ground’ this war will grind to a halt soon because Russia simply doesn’t have enough soldiers to take ground. 

So, when the Russians grind to a halt what happen next?  

Lord Dannatt, a retired British general and former Chief of General Staff (commander of the British armed forces) provided his analysis of the situation two weeks ago.  He demonstrated a good commander’s ability to make complex problems simple, stating that the Russians probably have the combat power to take Donbas (Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts) however “…will by that stage have pretty much shot their bolt”.  Further, he opined that after fighting a series of tough defensive battles the Ukrainians would be exhausted and unable to transition to offensive operations. Lord Dannett is a very smart person with enormous experience and probably has relationships with key leaders across the NATO militaries so his opinion has great weight. 

However, the ‘fog of war’ still persists and we cannot be sure how the war will develop, there is an argument that the Ukrainians may be able to generate enough combat power to undertake offensive operations particularly against an enemy weakened by fighting long battles against well-prepared defences.  Retired American general David Petraeus, previously discussed the battle around Severdonetsk opining that possibly it was to ‘fix’ and attrit the Russians before a Ukraine counter attack, noting that “If they (the Ukrainians) can get through that and get into the soft spot of the Russian defenses, then it’s very possible that they could just keep on going.”   This development depends entirely upon the state of Ukraine’s military, particularly the key determinants of offensive combat power tanks, tracked infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled guns. The hard-hitting mobile weapons that allow armies to bypass resistance and envelop or surround enemy forces before they can retreat.  The true state of the Ukraine’s offensive capability is hard to determine, it started the war with approximately 1500 tanks, 2500 tracked infantry fighting vehicles and 600 self-propelled guns. Reports of Ukrainian loses are hard to verify but estimates state that the Ukrainians may have lost up-to 50% of their armoured forces in the first battles of the war.  Since then we know the Ukrainians have received 230 tanks from Poland and Czechoslovakia.  270 Self-propelled guns and 140 tracked infantry fighting vehicles. The Ukrainians have also captured large amounts of Russian equipment.  Looking at this information it is very hard to judge Ukrainian capability and we just don’t know how much combat power they have and it is highly unlikely that this information will enter the public realm before Ukraine wants it too. 

An important consideration is that in July and August the weather in Ukraine is good, the ground dries out and the summer campaign season starts. Tanks and other vehicles can move more easily across country.  If Ukraine is going to go on the offensive this year it is likely to start in the next six to eight weeks.  

Further when we take wider view of the tactical battle, we can see that Ukraine is holding ground around Kharkov; and in the south Snake Island was recaptured by Ukraine this week.  This is a small but important victory, previously we have discussed Russian use of the island as a base for anti-aircraft missiles to cover their ships operating in coastal waters.  By removing this air cover the Ukrainians start to dominate the southern (coastal) flank of any advance from Odessa east along the coast towards Kherson.  The Ukrainians recently used anti-ship missiles against vessels supporting Snake Island further reducing Russia’s ability to use combined land, sea and air operations in the area. The south is also subject to considerable Ukrainian partisan activity that ties up Russian forces and most importantly prevents the establishment of a secure environment in which to conduct annexation processes.  Local partisans could also support Ukrainian offensives in the area. 

Strategically, the Russians continue to suffer this week.  Turkey’s concerns were addressed and Finland and Sweden were officially invited to join NATO.  Lithuania enforced sanctions against Russian goods being shipped across their territory to the Russian exclave of Kalingrad. Leaders from both G7 and NATO met and committed to supporting Ukraine. NATO placed 300,000 troops on high alert for deployment.  The United States announced the deployment of more permanent forces in Europe including construction of a permanent base in Poland. Finally, Russia defaulted on its international debt.  Threatening Russian rhetoric about invading the Baltic Republics or Poland abounds but the hard fact is that they do not have the capacity to invade any other NATO country.  NATO’s military power dwarfs Russia’s and their equipment, logistics and training are modern and effective.  A third of total Russian combat power is now deployed against Ukraine and is not performing well.  The only military option Russia has against NATO is nuclear escalation, and if it takes that option, it will lose everything. 

In summary, Russia is over-extended both strategically and tactically.  It is increasingly apparent that their military forces in Ukraine are not capable of large-scale offensive operations for instance breaking through Ukrainian lines, bypassing resistance then surrounding pockets of Ukrainian forces and destroying them. The Russians are forced instead to advance on a broad front committing very small tactical groups to attacks on limited objectives with massive artillery support.  This is a slow and costly way to fight and will become increasingly costly as more NATO long range artillery weapons become available to Ukraine.  Further, the Russian focus on assaulting heavily defended Ukrainian cities contributes to Russia’s problems because although capturing cities is politically expedient, it is very difficult and dangerous for the infantry soldiers that do it.  Russia is already terribly short of these soldiers and sacrificing them fighting in urban areas for political ‘wins’ is not sensible. 

Combined with the changing season’s better weather, Russia’s over-commitment to attacking the cities of Donbas factors may provide the tactical conditions for a Ukrainian transition to offensive operations in coming weeks.  Do the Ukrainians have the resources?  At this stage we don’t know, but we can certainly remain optimistic and should be watching for Ukrainian activity like: 

  • A rapid withdrawal to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk drawing the Russians into a large defensive battle. A battle for Sloviansk and Kramatorsk would ‘fix’ large Russian forces in one place allowing them to be counterattacked or possibly enveloped. 
  • More Ukrainian activity in the south aiming to dominate the sea and air along the Black Sea coast. If Ukraine controls the coast, the sea becomes a safe right flank for an advance east towards Crimea. 

In coming weeks, we will know if the Ukrainians are exhausted or if they have reserves and a bigger plan.  A large and successful Ukrainian offensive at this stage could be fatal strategically for Russia. 


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

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