Weekly Update: Severodonetsk Rages, A Mayor Betrays His Country
The Donbas continues to be hellish all around
Greetings from Istanbul! Sorry for the unannounced absence last week, upon leaving Ukraine last Monday I ended up tuning work out for a little while. After doing some touristy things in Poland (and seeing Top Gun: Maverick, which turned out to be a great antidote to Ukraine-related stress), I flew to Turkey to reunite with my girlfriend. We are sticking around here for a little while we plot our next move.
Severodonetsk Battle Grinds On
Shortly after my prediction 12 days ago that the fall of Severodonetsk appeared all but certain, Ukrainian forces managed to take back around half the city before being forced to retreat. The fight for Severodonetsk remains ongoing. Consequently, we are seeing a lot of footage of the kind of intense urban combat that has been relatively rare in the Donbas. I suspect that there is no clear front line amid the rubble of no man’s land.
The latest big update is that the last remaining bridge connecting Severodonetsk and the rest of unoccupied Ukraine has been destroyed.
I continue to maintain that the importance of Severodonetsk is overstated. While President Volodymyr Zelensky said last week that "the fate of the Donbas is being decided there,” I agree only to the extent that one side’s over-fixation on the battle may result in a catastrophic defeat. There simply isn’t a major strategic advantage in holding the city to justify fighting over it for the sake of terrain. Ukraine, I suspect, is invested in the notion that Russia is making the aforementioned mistake and hoping to sap enemy resources at an acceptable rate of loss.
Ukraine’s biggest problem in the Donbas remains Russia’s overwhelming firepower. As the Guardian reported on Friday, deputy head of military intelligence Vadym Skibitsky said that Ukraine has almost run out of its own artillery ammo, relying on NATO-standard 155-caliber shells delivered by Western allies instead. Skibitsky also said that Ukraine has just one artillery piece for every 10-15 Russian ones in the field. As anyone who has spent time recently in the Donbas can attest, this is a major problem for Ukraine in a battle that has turned primarily into an artillery war. Without a major increase in western supplies, Ukraine may lose the Donbas entirely.
Skibitsky’s bleak assessment coupled with calls for more gear has become the norm for Ukrainian officials speaking to Western media in recent weeks. Zelensky himself now frequently repeats it, with the government apparently decided that sober messaging is preferable to sanguine optimism in its bid to secure more Western aid. The silver lining for Ukraine’s supporters, it is implied, is that there is still hope that foreign governments might still catch up with Kyiv’s needs.
Sviatohirsk mayor defects to Russia
Mayor Volodymyr Bandura, whose small town of Sviatohirsk in northern Donetsk Oblast fell to Russian forces last week, has reemerged in occupied territory meeting with Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) head Denis Pushilin. This came after Bandura appeared in a video released by the Russian defense ministry accusing Ukrainian forces of destroying the All Saints Skete (a fabulously beautiful wooden cathedral at the Sviatohirsk Cave Monastery) and murdering local monks. According to Pushilin, the two had been talking for some time.
This otherwise minor development in the Donbas is particularly frustrating for me given my own link to Bandura. During a visit to Sviatohirsk last month, I met with the young mayor for an interview and wrote a story about him that reads like a profile in courage. We briefly met again a few days later after he stopped us on the street to say hello.
While I cannot claim intimate knowledge of the guy, he struck me as an idealistic young leader bravely staying behind in the face of the Russian advance. He was certainly generous with his time, happy to speak with a small-time American journalist writing for a Scottish newspaper that no one in Ukraine has heard of. When his initial denouement went public, I was sure that he had been captured and coerced. Our fixer from that time agreed. But when we got in touch with our local territorial defense contact who had arranged our initial meeting, he confirmed that Bandura had, in fact, gone to the Russians on his own accord.
Bandura had his own reasons, I suppose, for switching sides. I will not speculate on his motives, but I will say that he has proven himself duplicitous since going to the DNR. There is no evidence of Ukrainian forces murdering monks, nor would there have been any capacity for a coverup if such a major crime had occurred. Sviatohirsk, prior to its fall, was wide open to visitors. Townspeople were approachable on both my visits and, for the most part, happy to candidly open up to foreign press. And while I can admit that my sense of the vibe for the place was not infallible (I clearly got Bandura wrong), the flow of information in unoccupied Ukraine is as such that any terror campaign inflicted on civilians by the government would have registered in the Ukrainian discourse, even if just on Telegram channels at first. As was the case with Russian disinformation suggesting that Ukrainian death squads were responsible for the Bucha massacre, such nonsense claims make no sense to those familiar with Ukrainian open society.
Bandura’s repetition of the Russian claim that the Ukrainians destroyed the wooden cathedral may seem more plausible at first. Accidents happen during war, and the Russian defense ministry’s line that Ukrainian forces set it alight in the midst of a hasty retreat inspires less incredulousness than its accusations of a monk massacre. But the Russian propagandists made a mistake; Ukraine has not actually retreated from the Cave Monastery complex.
The new frontline at Sviatohirsk is the Seversky Donets River, with the Cave Monastery on the bank of the Ukrainian-held side. While it is unclear exactly how many Ukrainian soldiers remain at this zero line position (this is, after all, mainly an artillery war), the All Saints Skete is actually a satellite cathedral of the main complex located on the opposite side of the monastery’s mountain. With vital high ground separating the wooden cathedral from the front, it is inconceivable that Ukraine has retreated from the All Saints Skete, let alone intentionally burned it in an act of scorched-earth policy. Bandura, like his Russian handlers, is misrepresenting the basic geography of the battle.
In other news
Shelling in Kharkiv continues, with local authorities reporting six fires and two injured children last night. While Russia has not actively contested the city in more than a month, regular skirmishes have continued to the north as invading forces still hold on to territory near the border.
Russia’s Bryansk Oblast Governor Alexandr Bogomaz reported Ukrainian shelling in his territory overnight, saying that four people were injured. Footage on Telegram apparently shows explosions in the city of Klintsy near a military base, with water and electricity reportedly cut. The city is around 50 kilometers north of Ukraine’s Chernihiv Oblast.
Asya Zolnikova tells the story of the dismantling of Kyiv’s Ukraine-Russia friendship arch in Meduza.