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Weekly Update: Russia Captures Severodonetsk, Missile Strikes Shopping Mall
The Battle of Lysychansk has begun
Greetings from Izmir. As I wrote this newsletter, it was reported that at least one Russian missile hit a crowded shopping mall in Kremenchuk in Poltava Oblast. Located far away from any frontline, it is difficult to see this midday attack as anything other than terrorism.
It comes after a weekend of missile barrages in Kyiv that struck at least two apartment buildings and a kindergarten. After a relatively quiet few weeks, it has been speculated that Vladimir Putin is enraged over the delivery of American HIMARS multiple rocket launchers systems, capable of striking 40 kilometers deep into enemy territory. Ukrainians themselves will no doubt see these attacks as yet more attempts to physically destroy them as a people (more on that in the main article).
The end has finally come for the Battle of Severodonetsk, with Ukrainian forces having retreated across the Donets River to Lysychansk, after a month and a half of heavy fighting. Russian forces are now in total control of the destroyed city. The fate of its remaining inhabitants, as is usually the case in occupied territory, remains murky. While I will probably never know what came of Marina and Oleg Evdokimo, who graciously shared their pirozhkis with me when I visited their wrecked home, I dearly hope they are alive and experiencing a measure of relief.
The city’s fall, of course, had been long expected. Had someone told me on the day that I visited the city on May 26 that it would hold for exactly 30 more days, I would have been surprised and impressed by the defense’s resilience. Ukraine’s tenacity in holding the city challenged my predictions, and for weeks my newsletter ran low on original commentary as the slow, depressing slog over city blocks moved back and forth.
I stand by my prediction that, contrary to some reports, the Russian occupation of Severodonetsk will be of little strategic value. Lysychansk is the salient’s coveted high ground that Russia needs to take in order to secure the last remaining unoccupied corner of Luhansk Oblast. It is here that we can expect Ukraine to make its last stand before withdrawing to Donetsk Oblast, at which point Putin will have a long-sought (albeit partial) victory after fully capturing one of the two regions that comprises the Donbas.
With the end of the Battle of Severodonetsk thus comes the beginning of the Battle of Lysychansk. It will likely be an even longer and bloodier affair as Russia attempts to encircle Severodonetsk’s twin city and attack from the west and north rather than attempting to climb the ridge from the east and south. Ukraine will hold on well past the point where there is any real hope of winning the battle, much as it did in Severodonetsk.
Many are asking why, exactly, Ukraine is fighting so hard for territory it knows that it will likely lose. The Ukrainian military has been known to withdraw to more favorable terrain before, so why are they defending Luhansk under such grim odds?
The short answer is that if Ukrainians feel that they can bleed the Russian army dry at a tolerable casualty ratio in Luhansk, then they will do so. The Russians, after all, are already there, and retreating westward will expedite the loss of territory and destruction of cities and towns. That leads to another common question: why defend the Donbas in the first place amid the death and misery?
As Ukrainians understand it, the Battle of the Donbas is not just about defending geographical features on a map, and it is certainly not a bid to stubbornly defend land at the expense of a peace deal. Ukrainians have long known Russia’s intentions; they did not need to hear Putin compare himself to Peter the Great, nor read an article advocating “de-Ukrainization” in RIA Novosti, to understand the Kremlin’s aims. They know that Russia will continue its attempt to destroy them as a people for the foreseeable future. It is only a question as to where the battles physically occur.
Even if victory proves elusive to the point where a ceasefire is unavoidable, Ukraine will accept it with the assumption that Russia will resume its war when it is convenient to once again attempt to take Kyiv. It is thus advantageous to scar Russia as much as possible in the meantime, the thinking goes. The continuation of the war’s current hot phase also keeps alive the possibility that the chaos will eventually generate destabilizing whiplash within Russia itself.
While this war has not made me so fatalistic as to believe that Russians are forever doomed to a nihilistic existence of constant aggression serviced by its perpetual sense of victimhood, I certainly think they are so damned as long as the current status quo in Moscow continues. I do not know what it will take for someone in charge at the Kremlin to finally tell the Russian people that it is time to move on from this mentality, but such thinking will certainly not be negotiated away in peace talks.
Meduza takes a deep dive into the reasoning of Russian central bank governor Elvira Nabiullina for staying at her post, calling into question the rumor that she had tried to resign after February 24.