A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Jun 23, 2022

Russia, Again, Fails To Capture Severodonetsk, Which Doesn't Matter Anyway

The western media continue to focus on the battle for Severodonetsk as if its chronically imminent fall (the 'Waiting for Godot' of Russian military success) were somehow significant. But as the attached map reveals that it is an isolated outpost on the edge of Ukrainian territory. 

The Ukrainian army decision to fight there seems to have been driven in part by politics as it has helped produce more NATO aid, but in part it is a trap for the Russian army which has wasted copious amounts of blood and treasure on a now destroyed city of limited importance. Even liberal arts majors working in journalism should be able to understand the context. JL 

Daily Kos reports:

It has taken Russia three weeks and counting to take a city on an isolated salient (Severodonetsk), at the very end of Ukrainian-held territory. Lysychansk is much easier to defend, reinforce, and resupply (no blown bridges). (But) even Lysychansk doesn’t matter strategically! Russia can crow about conquering Luhansk, but the Donbas also includes Donetsk Oblast, and Ukraine holds thousands of square miles of it. And Russia can’t conquer it without going through heavily fortified Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. Russia will pay with blood for every meter it advances.

I circled Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in the map above as a reminder, that even if Russia takes Severodonetsk (probable) and Lysychansk (less probable), any such advance will crash at the gates of [the] heavily fortified cities [of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk], with clear supply lines and artillery support to their west. Honestly, I’ve rarely questioned Ukrainian strategy, but their defense of Severodonetsk, on the wrong side of the Donets River, is truly perplexing.

Not only is Lysychansk much easier to defend behind the natural barrier of the river, but it is closer to Ukrainian artillery support.

It turns out that Ukraine sent M777 howitzers right up to Lysychansk, and while they’ve wreaked havoc on Ukraine’s rear areas, we have video of at least three of them destroyed this past week (here's two of them). None of them have been geolocated, so maybe they were positioned elsewhere in the Donbas, but the most prevalent long-distance fires in Russian territory fan out from the Lysychansk area: 

FIRMS data for Severodonetsk Area
Red fires are artillery strikes in Russian territory, blue in Ukrainian territory (though the blue south of Lysychansk is now Russian-held)

Anyway, I rehash that old post because Ukraine is now down to one slice of Severodonetsk and its final retreat is imminent. Meanwhile, Russian forces finally punched through Ukrainian defenses north of Popasna and are approaching Lysychansk from the south. 

Unlike Severodonets, Lysychansk is absolutely defensible. Russia is blocked from its eastern approach by the Donets river, and currently safe from its western approach because of the same river. (Russian attempts to cross it have met with unmitigated large-scale disaster thus far.) Thus, Russia’s only approach at the moment is from the south. And look at what that looks like on a relief map:

dev.png

Dem Mon on twitter has marked the areas of Russian advance and Ukrainian defenses. I added emphasis to the series of heights that overlook the approach into town. Let’s take a closer look at that approach: 

LYS.png

There are two entrances into Lysychansk from that southern approach. The one on the east is a narrow corridor between bluff and river. Not only is it a natural ambush point, but might even be blockadable. It will certainly be mined to high heaven, requiring Russia to de-mine under fire. Here is a Google Maps street view from the foot of the hill with a nice, clear view of that road heading up north. Note the ample human infrastructure along the highway, allowing for harassment of Russian forces all the way into town.  

The wider western approach runs between two sets of bluffs, natural ambush points, and there is plenty of infrastructure.

Yes, Russia will level that. But that will take time, and Russia will pay with blood for every meter it advances. With their western flanks unsecured, Ukrainian counter-battery fire can continuing harassing Russian artillery, and doubly so as HIMARS rocket artillery arrives imminently. 

And we haven’t even entered Lyschansk proper, a city with a pre-war population of 100,000. It has taken Russia three weeks and counting to take a city on an isolated salient, at the very end of Ukrainian-held territory. Lysychansk is much easier to defend, reinforce, and resupply (no blown bridges).

And you know what? Even Lysychansk doesn’t matter strategically! Russia can crow all it wants about conquering all of Luhansk Oblast, but the Donbas also includes Donetsk Oblast, and Ukraine holds thousands of square miles of it. And Russia can’t conquer it without going through Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. 

Staring at map closeups skews perspective, so let’s put those two cities in their broader context: 

donbas.png

Small circle on the right is the Severodonetsk/Lysychansk pocket. The small circle to the left is Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, and the big circle is pretty much the remaining Ukrainian-held territory in the Donbas. At current pace, featuring frightening losses, that’ll only take Russia … still not doing the math. A long f’n time. And that’s assuming they somehow figure out how to fix their logistical issues. Heck, logistics might even hamper Russia’s southern approach toward Lysychansk. I wouldn't be surprised if Russia’s “flatten it, then march into the rubble” strategy doesn’t give them Lysychansk in a month or two, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Ukraine holds on. All because of logistics. 

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Ukraine has been targeting Russian supply and ammunition depots over the past week to spectacular effect. Much of that is credited to longer-range artillery like M777 howitzers from Australia, Canada, and the United States, and Caesar self-propelled guns from France. Yet several of these strikes are extra long range, using Soviet-era Tochka-U rockets (like here, here, and here). 

We knew Ukraine had them, but the fact that they’re still firing them this deep into the war is surprising. Either they have ungodly patience in using them, or they’ve been getting resupplied by former Soviet states (Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, Poland, and East Germany all had them but were retired, and Bulgaria had a handful remaining in service).  

If they had these rockets all along, why not hit these ammo dumps sooner? One possibility is partisan activity. Reports are spreading of partisan acts in occupied territories, with Russian soldiers and Ukrainian collaborators being assassinated by ambush or improvised explosives. Many also suspect these partisans are uncovering the location of these ammo dumps and passing coordinates to the Ukrainian army. Some of the results have been spectacular.

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