A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 27, 2022

The Reason Ukraine Isn't Retreating From Surrounded Donbas Cities

Ukraine is creating another Mariupol in the Donbas, a fortress city that ties up thousands of Russian troops for weeks, while the Ukrainian army makes headway elsewhere - and waits for the arrival of more NATO heavy weaponry. 

The strategy is to degrade Russian capabilities through a war of attrition as analysis suggests Russia is running out of manpower and equipment. If Ukraine can hang on, Russia will have exhausted its capability to attack and will be left with paltry gains to show for its effort. But the price for that is going to be more Ukrainian soldiers' lives. JL 

Daily Kos reports:

Severodonetsk is the next Mariupol—a city that sucks up a disproportionate amount of Russia’s combat power in order to slow the invader’s advance. Ukraine needs two months to assemble all its reservists and western weaponry, every day that Severodonetsk holds out is one day closer to that magic future date. The U.S. is sending heavy vehicles by ship. Shipping times from US east coast to France is 24 days. Then they have to be unloaded and rail-shipped. Optimistically, this armor won’t be in Ukraine’s hands for 6-8 weeks. Ukraine needs to buy time, and keeping Severodonetsk is part of that strategy.

The United States’s decision on whether to send MLRS/HIMARS rocket artillery to Ukraine has been painfully long and torturous, but they’re reportedly on the verge of making it happen. According to CNN’s sources, the problem is fear “Ukraine could use the systems to carry out offensive attacks inside Russia … The MLRS and its lighter-weight version, the HIMARS, can launch as far as 300km, or 186 miles.”

I’ve already written why I hope we don’t send MLRS unless the platform has been significantly upgraded since I was in the army 30 years ago. But the logic above is nonsensical. MLRS and HIMARS rockets (they use the same ammunition, HIMARS just has half the rockets per load than MLRS) have a real range of 32-70 kilometers (20-44 miles) depending on the specific rocket. As always, the longer the range, the fewer in the arsenal, the more expensive they are. (For context, M777 howitzers range from 21 kilometers (13 miles) for a standard round, which costs around $800, to 40 kilometers (25 miles) for a precision-guided Excalibur rounds, which cost about $1 million each).

The 186-mile figure comes from the ATACMS, a massive ultra-long-range ballistic rocket that costs about $5 million a pop. Ukraine wasn’t likely to get those anyway, obviating any concerns that Ukraine might launch them deep into Russian territory. The standard rockets already have a significant range advantage over traditional artillery, which is really what Ukraine wants. All of Russia’s recent advances have been thanks to their overwhelming artillery advantage. Ukraine just wants to even that playing field. 

Ukraine is convinced MLRS/HIMARS will change its fortunes in Donbas, and allow it to more effectively go on the offensive to retake lost territory. Assuming Ukraine’s logistical chain can handle these thirsty systems (I’ve written about my own experience managing logistics for an MLRS platoon here), there’s no doubt they would give Ukraine a major boost in combat capabilities. But perhaps not in the Severodonetsk salient, which Ukraine is defending at all costs.

I circled several key cities in the Battle of the Donbas. Lyman fell to Russia today as expected. No reason for Ukraine to seriously contest the city when it had more defensible positions right across the river—with high bluffs overlooking the river as well. 

The main supply highway between Bakhmut and Lysychansk remains open, though under constant Russian shelling. As I write this, Zolote, north of Popasna, was still held by Ukrainian forces. As you can see on the map above, several major supply routes run through Bakhmut. Losing the city would essentially cut off that entire Lysychansk-Severodonetsk pocket, and Russia inched closer today, taking several small settlements on their push out of Popasna. However, Bakhmut had a pre-war population of 75,000—enough of an urban environment that Russia will have trouble entering. Furthermore, those Russian supply lines are starting to get long, and we know what happens when they are stretched out.

It had been a while since we’d seen the Javelin/NLAW anti-tank hunters in action. They are at their best with guerrilla tactics harassing Russian lines of communication, which is exactly what’s happening with Russian forces stretching out from Popasna. Russia’s artillery advantage is negated by these small, mobile kill teams.

As Mark wrote earlier today, the Izyum salient is dead in the water despite having had the largest concentration of Russian forces in the country. I doubt that’s any longer the case, as we’ve known some forces were repositioned to the Kharkiv front to the north, as Ukraine threatens Russia’s supply lines. (There were rumors of new Ukrainian gains in the region, but I’ll hold off on any more details until we get better confirmation). I’d be shocked of Russia hasn’t further moved forces from Izyum to the Popasna advance, as it’s been the first time in weeks Russia has actually moved forward. 

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 those two heavily fortified cities, 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. Even MLRS/HIMARS would be of little help in the defense of Severodonetsk, it’s just too far away from safe firing positions . 

There is certainly propaganda value, as Russia wants to declare all of Luhansk Oblast conquered. Ukraine is down to the last 5-10% of the oblast. But so what if Russia takes it? There is a broader war to be fought. Russia can crow all it wants about taking a tiny slice of Donbas, but that won’t get it any closer to winning the war. 

My guess is that Severodonetsk is the next Mariupol—a city that sucks up a disproportionate amount of Russia’s combat power in order to slow the invader’s advance. Ukraine needs two months to assemble all its reservists and western weaponry, every day that Severodonetsk holds out is one day closer to that magic future date.

The U.S. is sending its heavy vehicles by ship. There’s 200 of these on the way, plus hundreds of more Humvees, so this is likely more efficient than trying to fly them in. Also, it seems that things like artillery cannons and ammunition are higher priority for limited air transport space. I looked up shipping times from Georgia to France (no idea what port they’re going to), and it’s 24 days. Then they have to be unloaded and rail-shipped to Poland, and then transported across the border however that’s done (no one is talking about it for obvious reasons). So optimistically, all this armor won’t be in Ukraine’s hands for at least another 6-8 weeks. 

Ukraine needs to buy time, and it seems that keeping Severodonetsk in Ukrainian hands for the next few weeks is part of that strategy.

Furthermore, there is suspicion in Ukraine that Russia is convincing its western allies to trade Ukrainian territory for a cease-fire. France and Germany certainly seem squishy, and Ukrainian media wasn’t happy when the United States and Russia re-established their military deescalation hotline. We might think, “good! Less chance of a misunderstanding escalating to nuclear war!” But Ukraine is convinced that Russia is in a full-court diplomatic press to freeze the conflict at its current status quo, averting a prolonged war (and its effects on the global economy and food supply), all for the low-low price of just the Donbas and Kherson. Whatever Ukraine’s motivations, all indications are that the situation in the Donbas is desperate.


Still, rather than retreat, reports are that Ukraine is actually sending more troops to Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, reinforcing the cities against the Russian onslaught. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to provide artillery cover in such a deep Ukrainian salient. Those reinforcements will likely be on their own. Hopefully, their defensive emplacements offer solid protection against artillery, because it’s going to rain fire. And no MLRS/HIMARS shipment, whether in two weeks or two months, can change that equation.


Everything that is happening now is the culmination of incredibly shrinking Russian ambitions. Ukraine holds around 5,000 square miles of Donbas territory. That Lysychansk/Severodonetsk pocket would get Russia 5-10% of that territory. They've got a long way to go.



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