Weekly Update: Severodonetsk Falling
But taking the last remaining pocket of Luhansk will be tough for Russia
Greetings from Odessa! After an exhausting week and a half in the Donbas, I have been relaxing by the Black Sea for a couple days. The weather would be perfect for a swim, if only the beaches were not mined. As was the case last week, this update will feature a single analysis rather than providing a digest of the latest news. And, if you have not already done so, see my recent dispatch from Severodonetsk, the main subject of today’s newsletter, in the Sunday Post.
Before I begin, I should mention that our fixer Mykola Pastukh, without whom my aforementioned story would not have been possible, was seriously wounded by artillery last Saturday in Lysychansk while attempting to make a second trip to Severodonetsk with my friends Alex Chan Tsz Yuk and Kaoru Ng. As you can see in the video below, it was an incredibly close call.
While he is doing okay, he will need extensive surgery to regain full use of his right hand. We are working on the best way to raise funds for his expenses; expect an update soon.
Russia Poised to Capture Severodonetsk
Most of Severodonetsk, which has become the epicenter of the entire invasion, is now in Russian hands. After weeks of intense shelling that has reduced much of the city to rubble, thousands of Russian soldiers are currently engaged in a grueling street battle to take what is left.
What will it mean for Ukraine in the likely event that the city falls completely? Surprisingly little, at least relative to Russia’s gargantuan investment in the fight. The most obvious benefit for Russia is that it will be one step closer to conquering the final pocket of Ukrainian resistance in Luhansk Oblast, a goal that presumably serves as the impetus behind Vladimir Putin’s decision to place his strongest cards in this battle.
But in order to achieve that goal, Russia will also have to take Lysychansk, Severodonetsk’s twin city located directly across the Donets River. While this is certainly achievable (although difficult), attacking from Severodonetsk itself would be suicidal. In addition the the obvious natural barrier presented by the river, Lysychansk towers over Severodonetsk from its position on the northern spur of the Donets Ridge.
Russia appears to know this is a bad idea, as it attempts to close the pocket from the south and west. But even this will be a long slog.
Furthermore, Russia may not be able to sustain the momentum that has thus far allowed it slowly edge toward victory in the Donbas. I see two main factors working against Russia’s favor.
Firstly, the $19 billion in military aid allocated to Ukraine in the American Lend-Lease Act will eventually show results on the battlefield. The aid will be particularly potent now that the U.S. has confirmed that the Himars multiple rocket launcher system will be included in the package. Additionally, the U.K. announced yesterday that it will be sending the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System. These two weapons, which Ukraine has long begged for, could significantly alter the battle scape with their ability to shred entire grid coordinates with high explosives at a distance of up to 45 miles. It will, of course, take some weeks before the weapons arrive and Ukrainian crews can be trained.
The other problem brewing for Russia in the Donbas is more speculative, but could prove fatal if realized. As far as we can tell, Russia has made significant use of conscripts from the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (DNR and LNR respectively) to wage its Donbas campaign, as well as in Kharkiv and Kherson Oblasts to a degree. These troops are Ukrainians (at least in some sense of the term) who have lived under the Kremlin’s occupation administrations for the past eight years. Their use has helped Russia avoid a mass mobilization that would see its own conscripts pour across the border, while rendering the local proxies cannon fodder in the process.
In recent weeks, we have seen signs of discontent among the ranks in the form of videos on pro-Russian Telegram channels.
Some rumbling, of course, is to be expected, and we have seen this from the Ukrainian side as well. What is particularly striking is that D/LNR troops appear to have little appetite for fighting outside their respective oblasts. The DNR in particular seems to have at least some troops adamant that they have no business helping their counterparts in Luhansk, “a completely different republic” in the words of one soldier. With the two entities focused on their own narrow interests in taking the particular turf that they believe to be rightfully theirs, Russia could have some real headaches going forward with its big picture plans in Ukraine.
The bottom line is that it will likely not be enough for Russia to continue its current strategy of making slow, incremental process through its raw firepower and liberal use of local soldiers. While it is currently winning the attrition, it cannot count on the current favorable conditions to continue for months. Between Ukraine’s forthcoming upgraded arsenal and its own internal problems, Russia might only have weeks left to swallow whatever land it can before falling into a stalemate… or worse.
That is it for this week. On a personal note, I have filed my last article from Ukraine. This time next week, I will probably be in Poland before heading to Turkey for a little while. I intend to continue my invasion analysis and news digest, hopefully on a more stable basis, once I settle down a bit. Sooner or later, you may also see some of the broader content I have hinted at. Stay tuned.