The next couple of weeks will be very important. Russia is mustering its strength for a final push and we can see that there is a clear strategy developing ‘on the ground’. Time is running out for Russia, if they are going to seize all of Donbas they need to move quickly. Ukraine is receiving international support, mobilising its reserves and building its military power. So the campaign is now becoming a high-stakes race, Russia trying to gain as much ground as it can before its tired and depleted army collapses. Ukraine fighting to ‘hold on’ while they use international aid to build enough military power to successfully counter attack and take back their lost territory.
The key prizes at this stage are; Severdonetsk and Lysyschansk, cities on the Severskyi-Donets River and the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk approximately 50km to the west. If the Russians hold Severodontesk and Lysyschansk they hold Luhansk Oblast (region) and Sloviansk and Kramatorsk are the last major cities of the Donetsk Oblast still controlled by Ukraine. The Russian’s objective is a separate, ‘liberated’ Donbas Region (consisting of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts). Achieving this aim requires control of these cities. The next few weeks are crucial to this campaign.
The race started weeks ago when Russian forces captured the city of Poposna, quietly holding it and waiting. Russia then tried to cross the Severskyi-Donets River looking for a close encirclement of Severodonetsk. Russia’s initial moves were stopped by the Ukrainians who inflicted heavy casualties and forced a change in plan. Last week, Russian forces in Poposna started an advance north toward Severodonetsk and west towards Bahkmut. It is unlikely that the Russians want to take Bahkmut, but instead want to dominate the area around it. This area is important because it includes the junction of the M03 motorway that leads north towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk and the T1302 motorway that runs east to Lysyschansk and Severdonetsk. This road is the main supply route for Lysyschansk and Severdonetsk. The M03 has been discussed before because it runs north and west from Bahkmut to Izyum, via Sloviansk. So it is an important road to control for the future operations of both sides.
Next Lyman was taken by the Russians, another small town north of Severodonetsk. At the moment, Russia is trying to develop an offensive aimed south from Lyman. This could be aiming to meet up with the forces launched from Poposna in the south that if they meet will form a line about 30km west of Severodontesk encircling and ‘cutting off’ the Ukrainian defenders. Or these may be diversionary attacks, designed to keep Ukrainian forces away from Severodonetsk. Another option is that the attack from Poposna is a real attack designed to cut the Ukrainian supply line on the T 1302 motorway to Severodonetsk.
On 27 May, Russian forces started trying to ‘break in’ to Severodonetsk. Russian troops do not surround Severodonetsk; and are attacking frontally from the east supported by enormous amounts of artillery. This attack plan confirms that the Russians are under time pressure to take the city quickly. A better military solution would be to take time and surround the forces defending Severodontesk, making supply or retreat impossible and enabling their destruction. Instead they are throwing firepower and men at ‘nipping’ off small chunks of the city from the east.
Do the Russians have the resources to achieve their objectives? The answer is very uncertain, the consensus amongst analysts is that the Russians probably have enough combat power to take Severdonetsk and Lysyschansk, that taking Sloviansk and Kramatorsk may be achievable but that anything more is not. Evidence of Russia’s military exhaustion is extensive from 50–60-year-old T 62 tanks being taken out of storage for use in Ukraine, to the age of enlistment in the military being raised to 50 and to NATO intelligence reports that show that Russia is running out of precision-guided missiles and has a shortage junior officers. Further, the Russians are under pressure because they know that with time the Ukrainians will get stronger as the receive more international aid.
On the other side, the state of Ukrainian forces is a difficult to assess, we know that like the Russians their frontline forces in the north and east have been continuously engaged for three months. After this period of time, they will have lost people, junior leaders, weapons and equipment. However, we don’t know how soon their reserves will be mobilised with new and more sophisticated weapons provided by NATO. However, based on the campaign to-date we can predict that these forces join the battle, it is likely that they will be a match for Russia’s troops and able to take the offensive.
We also know that the Ukrainians are ‘digging in’ to defend Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. The cities are located on high ground and with preparation, will be a formidable obstacle. In the ‘bigger picture’ the defence of Severodonetsk and Lysyschansk provides time to prepare defences in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. Recently, the Russians drifted north, concentrating to attack Severodonetsk and were also drawn north of Izyum by the Ukrainian offensive from Kharkov. This trend is interesting because it is a combination of Russian objectives and Ukrainian activity working together to ‘shape’ Russian deployment. Who has the initiative and is dictating the tempo and location of operations? Is Russia driving the pace of the campaign? Or is it conforming to Ukraine’s strategy?
The Ukrainians need to time to build their forces and it is likely that they are aiming for offensive action in the summer that takes advantage of the good weather, dry ground and new weapons arriving from NATO. A classic tactic is to defend and draw your opponent into attacking a fortified area. This forces the attacker to their concentrate forces. The defender has many advantages and, in the military, defence is often thought of as a way to attrit and ‘fix’ the enemy. When the enemy is concentrating their force to attack your fortified area you know exactly where they are and the concentration of forces for an attack in one area means other areas have less.
The Russians have not been able to force a crossing of the Severskyi-Donets River and may not have the bridging equipment left to try again. The Russians are relying on the offensives from Lyman and Poposna to ‘cut off’ supplies and reinforcements. However, these offensives are not progressing rapidly, advancing maybe a kilometre or two a day. When the offensive from Poposna threatened the T1302 motorway the Ukrainians were able to counter-attack and push it back. Simple maths says that it will take weeks to close the gap and trap the Ukrainians.
Further, it is likely that Severodonetsk will hold as long as the Ukrainians want it too. Today there are some reports that they are withdrawing in good order to Lysyschansk. This city is on the western side of the Severskyi-Donets River, it will be easy to defend because to attack it the Russians need to either cross the river or advance from Lyman or Poposna. The first, option is very dangerous because it will be strongly opposed by the Ukrainians. The second option will take time and the assault force will have to cover a significant distance. Neither is easy; and a Ukrainian withdrawal executed at the right time, balances imposing delay on the Russians with minimising casualties.
It should also be noted that on 28 May the Ukrainians crossed the Inhulets River, in the south between Mykolaiv and Kherson. A strong force led by 5th Armoured Brigade, a unit that has had a quiet war so far, being held near Odessa to counter any attack on that city and recently released for offensive use. A powerful, relatively fresh unit is dangerous for the Russians in this area and there is a fierce battle starting in the south. Most analysts see this operation as a ‘spoiling’ attack launched to prevent the Russians consolidating their positions in the Kherson / Mykolaiv area. This is likely true; however it demonstrates a high-level of Ukrainian capability, river crossings are a very difficult operation. Russia has tried a number of times to execute river crossings and failed.
The Russians appear to be being forced by their political masters into a tough series of battles in Severodonentsk, Lysychansk, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. Large cites that will be easily defended and hard to attack. Even with all the artillery in the world, taking a city requires infantrymen to close with the enemy; and Russia simply does not many. The limited infantry that they do have will be ground away in each city they attack. The only way not to lose lots of infantry soldier attacking a city is to literally pulverise the city into rubble. However, the Russia soldiers are moving into Severodonetsk indicate that politically they need to capture the city more quickly than their artillery can destroy it. Essentially, the Russians are being forced to ‘put their hand in the mincer’ by political pressure to capture these cities.
It appears that the Ukrainians are using the defence of these cities to ‘fix’ Russian forces and destroy them in defensive battles. This is a tactic that was successfully used on a much larger scale by the Soviets in World War Two. The major battles that smashed German military power were Stalingrad and Kursk. Both examples of the Soviets using a defensive battle to draw in an enemy, force them to concentrate and attrit them before transitioning to offensive operations. Likewise, both German offensives were driven by political objectives forcing tactical commanders to fight battles that simply ground their forces away as they attacked strong defensive positions.
The real question is – How soon can the Ukrainians transition to offensive operations? This is a tough question and relies on how quickly international support can be provided to Ukraine. Remember, that there is a big difference between a politician’s commitment and the equipment arriving in Ukraine. It seems likely that they will be planning for the summer. If they can draw the Russians into a defensive fight in the north-east and hold them there then they may be creating the conditions for an attack in the south. Recapturing Kherson would be a substantial victory, and re-taking Mariupol would be even better driving a wedge between Donbas and Crimea, breaking the Russian land bridge and providing a significant political victory. So keep watching the south.
In summary, if Severodonetsk falls the war is far from over and the next few weeks will answer a number of questions. The first and foremost of which is – Who is setting the tempo? Are the Russian’s fighting smarter and starting to win? Or are the Ukrainian’s leading them into attacks that will deplete their strength and set them up for a counter-offensive? At this stage we don’t know, however over the next week or two we will find out.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.