A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 24, 2022

How Ukraine's Defense Of Severodonetsk Weakened Russian Forces Elsewhere

Ukraine's goal is to get back to its 2014 borders. That means keeping Kharkiv safe and retaking Kherson, Melitopol and Mariupol. 

The object of fighting the Russians in Severodonetsk - the yellow spot on the heat map - was to pull them away from the more strategically important areas. Although the remaining Ukrainian troops in the embattled city have now been ordered to withdraw, their fellow soldiers have advanced beyond Kharkiv and towards Kherson. It worked. JL 

Daily Kos reports:

Ukraine is on the counteroffensive because Russia has hollowed out defenses in Kherson and Kharkiv. On the heat map that hottest spot is the largest Russian troop concentration, south of Severodonetsk. Russians are thin everywhere else. Ukrainian resistance in the city is confined to the industrial zone. (But) Ukrainian forces roam the city at night, when their night-vision gear provides advantage over "blind" Russians, retreating to the industrial zone at daylight. It doesn’t take many defenders to extract a severe toll on Russian troops. The situation is secure enough that Ukraine can take prisoners. Russia’s Donbas proxies have grabbed all men up to the age of 60. They are an exhaustible supply.

Yesterday I rehashed the wisdom of defending Severodonetsk, and the challenges of doing so far from safe Ukrainian territory, with difficult supply lines and exposed artillery. Indeed, Ukraine has lost at least two, and possibly three precious M777 howitzers located in Lysychansk, exposed to Russian counter-battery fire from three sides. 

Today I’m going to play devil’s advocate, offering a defense of the Severodonetsk’s defense, because whether it’s wise or not, reports on Wednesday claimed Ukraine was reinforcing (or rotating) troops in the city, as well as resupplying its defenders.

As I write this, the little Ukrainian pocket around Zolote was being sewn up, with Ukraine retreating from those positions after a heroic three-week defense while nearly surrounded. North of that, Russian troops are single-digit kilometers away from the southern approach to Lysychansk, where Ukrainian defenders have used the town’s high ground to assist the Severodonetsk defense, shelling Russian positions in the city. Pretty soon, those defenses will have to turn inward to protect Lysychansk itself. 

Ukrainian resistance in Severodonetsk is confined to the city’s industrial zone, akin to what we saw in Mariupol. Night time is supposedly a different story. If reports are true, Ukrainian special forces roam the city at night, when their night-vision gear provides an advantage over their blind Russian invaders, retreating to the industrial zone at daylight. It’s hybrid guerrilla warfare, holding a known, fixed position by day, but sniping and harassing at night. The situation in the industrial zone is surprisingly secure enough that Ukraine can take prisoners.

These guys are chill and laughing, literally taking prisoners. Cornered, desperate soldiers don’t take prisoners.

Close-quarter urban warfare makes it hard for effective use of artillery—no one wants to hit their own troops. So as long as Russian forces are nearby, the fight becomes … more fair. More direct. For some curious reason, Russia isn’t doing their usual “level everything to the ground, then march into the rubble.” Perhaps they saw how long it took in Mariupol, and hope that direct assaults speed things up. 

Note the lack of artillery shelling compared to videos you might see from other parts of the front (the occasional booms are likely mortar or tank fire).

Reports claim Ukraine isn’t overcommitting to the city’s defense, with only around 600-800. In this concrete jungle, where rubble doubles as defensive positions, it doesn’t take many defenders to extract a severe toll on advancing Russian troops. Even more so if those advancing forces lack competence.

The prisoners are wearing the red armbands of Russia’s Donbas proxy forces. (Russian forces wear white armbands.) These are untrained proxy cannon fodder. Russia isn’t storming this maze of industrial buildings with professional forces well-trained in urban combat and building-clearing operations. They are shepherding meat to slaughter. That all likely feeds into Ukraine’s decision to continue the defense. 

Ukraine has consistently said they won’t be in position for any full-scale counter-offensives until maybe August, most likely September. Severodonetsk thus serves two critical functions: 

1. It thins the (Russian) herd. Russia’s Donbas proxies have exhausted their mobilization, having grabbed all men up to the age of 60. They may be Russia’s preferred source of cannon fodder, but they are an exhaustible supply. Once that cannon fodder runs out, Russia will have to risk more of its own men, and without full Russian mobilization (which Vladimir Putin is clearly loathe to do), that supply is also exhaustible. Reports from Russia claim that 60% of VDV forces have been destroyed—their supposedly “elite” airborne units. More and more of Russia’s troops are volunteer soldiers on thee-month contracts. Doesn’t seem sustainable. And no one is getting trained on a three month contract. 

Meanwhile, Russia is also facing dire equipment shortages. Read this report from a Pro-Putin Russian blogger in Luhansk. 

AF RF [Armed Forces Russian Federation] since the start of the SMO [special military operation] have lost the majority of the modern T-72/90 modifications and the majority of the BMP-3 fleet. Over a month ago the Belohirivka crossing demonstrated not only the monstrous situation with command’s incompetency in some places, but also the fact that RF AF are now fighting with second or third sets of equipment consisting of the same BMP-1 which the Ukrainian army is now receiving from the Eastern European allies. In fact, the UAF [Ukrainian Armed Forces] have all the chances to soon receive more modern equipment to replenish their losses, but the RF AF and LPR [Luhansk People’s Republic] People Militia’s corps have no chance of replenishing with modern produce of our military-industrial complex. It just does not produce enough to replenish, and it won’t be any time soon.

So going to the frontline are T-62s and BMP-1s taken off from storage, and, for example, the radio navigational equipment on these vehicles has either rotted away or is just missing, or represented by R-123 radio stations, meanwhile the UAF have have streamlined deliveries of digital “Motorola”s and GPS-receivers of a military grade. For understanding, if now in one of the tank battalions of the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] and LPR People’s Militia there is at least one fully combat-ready tank company (out of three or four it is meant to have), then this is a record and a reason for pride. In fact, the majority of the combat-ready vehicles consist of the trophied Ukrainian T-64s which have been captured in a more or less decent state compared to the own T-64 of the people’s militants.

2. It bogs down Russian forces away from other fronts

This heat map of Russian troop concentrations is almost a week old, but not much has changed, and not much will change so long as Ukraine is holding out in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.

That hottest spot, the largest Russian troop concentration, is in the Popasna salient, south of Lysychansk. It’s the Russian grouping that finally broke through Ukrainian defenses pushing their way north. The second largest concentration of Russian forces is at the Izyum salient. All of these troops are trying to finish the conquest of the entire Luhansk Oblast, while threatening the twin Ukrainian strongholds at Sloviansk and Kramatorsk—gateway to the rest of Ukrainian-held Donbas.

Now look at how thin Russians are everywhere else. 

There’s a reason why Ukraine has been able to push forward around Kherson and Kharkiv, even before their reserves are trained and Western equipment has been fielded and operational. Ukraine is on the counteroffensive because Russia has hollowed out defenses in those areas, giving Ukraine the unexpected opportunity to jostle for positioning ahead of those big promised offensives a few months down the road. 

As much as Ukraine talks about taking back Crimea and the entire Donbas, their real goal is to get back to the 2014 borders, after which they can reassess. That means pushing Russia away from Kharkiv and retaking Kherson, Melitopol, and Mariupol. Russia’s inability to lock those regions down is specifically because of Ukrainian resistance in the Donbas, and their continued hold on Lysychansk and Severodonetsk.

Now, I still think Lysychansk is more defensible than Severodonetsk, but no one has taken Lysychansk off the board. At some point, inevitably, Ukraine will decide that Severodonetsk is no longer worth the lives and equipment to defend, and those troops will raft across the river to the other side. Lysychansk itself can then hold out for a few more months, further bleeding Russian forces, fixing them in this theater and leaving the rest of the front under-resourced, waiting for the day that Ukraine finally launches its full-scale liberation effort. 

After the war we’ll learn Ukraine’s real toll in this defense, and military historians (and armchair generals) can argue whether that cost in lives was worth it.


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