A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 22, 2023

As Ukraine Advances In South, Russia's Northern Threat Appears Exaggerated

As Ukrainian forces push south of Robotyne and Urozhaine, a purported Russian threat in northern Ukraine near Kupiansk may be exaggerated, even as headlines blare that Ukraine is evacuating civilians. 

What has not received as much attention is that Ukrainian forces have long been concerned about the Russian sympathies of many in the Kupiansk area, so the evacuation may be as much about removing a local intelligence and 5th column threat as about Russian attacks. JL

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

Russian occupiers are being driven from their last positions along the southern edge of Robotyne. The fighting now seems to be stretching toward Verbove, where Ukraine has come in contact with the dragon’s teeth and trenches of Russia’s main defensive line. Ukraine is (also) pressing from Staromaiorske and Urozhaine. Ukrainian forces are keen on taking Kermenchyk, securing the road and cutting off Russian forces that remain. (In the north) a Russian attack on Kupyansk appears to be exaggerated. Ukrainian authorities indicate they have full control of Kupyansk and Russia’s tactical gains, if any, are minor.

At Robotyne (pre-war population 500), Russia still claims the village is under Kremlin control while the official Ukrainian military position is only that Ukrainian forces have reached the center of the village. However, Telegram insists that Ukraine has full control, with Russian occupiers being driven from their last positions along the southern edge of the town. The fighting now seems to be stretching out toward the town of Verbove, where Ukraine has reportedly come in contact with the dragon’s teeth and tank trenches of Russia’s main defensive line. However, those reports are unofficial and similar claims made two weeks ago turned out to be false. Drone video, or it didn’t happen. Stay tuned.

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At Urozhaine (pre-war population 1,000) things are more official. Ukrainian forces hold the town and the next big fight is expected to be 4 kilometers to the south at Staromlynivka, where Russia’s main defensive lines in that area are found. However, instead of moving straight south toward Staromlynivka, Ukraine appears to be spreading out east and west to take the heights overlooking the Mokri Yali River valley, which they will eventually need to descend to continue their advance. This protects their flanks and also provides fire control over those villages by positioning Ukrainian forces above the Russian garrisons below.

Ukraine is pressing southwest from the area of Staromaiorske, and southeast from Urozhaine. Ukrainian forces are reportedly especially keen on taking Kermenchyk to the east, securing the road and cutting off any Russian forces that remain around Novodonetske.

We’ve talked many times about the fact that Russia has been fighting in front of its main defensive lines, and while there are reasons why this can make sense, there are also some obvious downsides. Those downsides become even more obvious as the distance between the prepared defenses and those advanced fighting positions begins to shrink.

That squeezing of Russian forces in front of the defensive positions may have occurred at a couple of places near Robotyne in the past couple of days, forcing surviving Russian forces to step back to the other side of the trenches.

On Sunday, Russia claimed to have captured the village of Synkivka, a scant 6 kilometers northeast of the strategically important town of Kupyansk in northern Ukraine. Other reports indicated that Ukraine has begun evacuating civilians from Kupyansk, and that a Russian attack on Kupyansk could come shortly. However, those claims now appear to be exaggerated. At the moment, Ukrainian authorities indicate that they have full control of Kupyansk and that Russia’s tactical gains, if any, are minor.

But even as Ukraine is dealing with the situation near the extreme northern end of the line, the whole region from Kupyansk down to the forests south of Kreminna continues to be a concern. As Forbes noted at the beginning of August, Russia has concentrated half its forces in the north. They've tried to advance around Kupyansk, west of Svatove, and both south and west of Kreminna. Fighting around Kreminna has been intense for weeks


Russia’s claims about a big advance at Kupyansk may be overblown, but the sheer number of men they’ve placed in the north means that Ukraine has to keep a significant force in place—a force that can’t be sent south or east to the lines where Ukraine is advancing.

Months before Ukrainian forces began a counteroffensive in the south, Russia had already announced its own new offensive in the north. Throughout the winter months, Russia struggled to fight its way out of Kreminna, Svatove, and the small area of Kharkiv oblast it still controlled north of Kupyansk, without much success.

When spring came, Russian military bloggers bragged that Russia had moved another 120,000 men into the area, with the intention of driving to the Oskil River while forcing Ukraine out of Lyman, Borove, and Kupyansk. Russia even seemed to be making a push in that direction three weeks ago, moving out of Svatove to capture three villages along the road to Borove and increasing pressure west of Kreminna. But those Russian “victories” were rolled back almost as soon as they happened. Within a week, boundaries in both areas seemed to be back to where they were in February.

Over a period of six weeks, Russian forces have ground out slow gains west of Kreminna. There have been false claims that Russian forces made a breakthrough and were on the brink of recapturing Lyman, but so far the action is still confined mostly to a salient that stretches west from Kreminna toward the town of Torske. Russia’s push at Kreminna is definitely getting attention from Ukraine, as multiple units have been shuffled into this area. Intense fighting continues both in that western salient and in the forests south of Kreminna, where Ukrainian troops have managed to hold on to positions despite months of Russia trying to push them out.

But north of Kupyansk, Russia has been able to take territory and hold it. Now they may be on the edge of a genuine threat … or it may be little more than propaganda.

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Should Russia launch a significant assault on Kupyansk, it’s unclear if Ukraine would attempt to maintain a position on the eastern bank of the Oskil or step back across the bridge to defend the larger portion of Kupyansk, which is on the western side. The bridge would certainly be the easiest point of defense. However, if they surrender the eastern part of that area of the town, it could open Russia to more movement south, along the eastern bank of the Oskil, not only threatening a series of towns there but possibly cutting off Ukrainian forces along the P07 highway down to Svatove.

However, all of that may be academic. Despite Russia’s reported advance and capture of Synkivka, in a statement issued on Telegram, Ukrainian armed forces were extremely dismissive of the supposed Russian gains, saying, “The Russians do not even have a tactical success near Kupyansk, we have strengthened our reserves.”

A video widely circulated on Russian outlets was said to show Russian forces driving through Synkivka, but it didn’t take long before that video was widely debunked as not matching either the buildings or the streets in the village. In fact, the video comes from Voronove, in an area of Luhansk that Russia has occupied since 2014. Russia may hold Synkivka, or it may still be contested. It’s unclear.

According to the Telegram statement, Russia suffered over 150 casualties in the assault on Synkivka, along with “two T-72 tanks, three armored vehicles, a D-30 howitzer, a mortar and a command and observation post.” This followed a reported six repelled attacks on Synkivka last Friday, during which Russia was also reported to have lost several vehicles.

The capture of Synkivka would ordinarily be barely worth noting. The village is small, with a pre-war population of around 350. Russia’s advance was also small, less than 1.5 kilometers from their previously known position. If Russia really was positioned to threaten the capture of Kupyansk, it would represent a genuine concern. But that does not seem to be the case right now, despite Russian propaganda and some overnight panic among bloggers rather than soldiers.

Following the Kharkiv counteroffensive, Ukraine devoted limited forces to the area north and east of Kupyansk as it moved to take Lyman to its south, secure the area east of the Oskil River, and position itself for moves into Luhansk oblast through Kreminna. At one point, Ukraine forces moved up those roads north and east of Kupyansk to liberate not just Synkivka, but Lyman Pershyi, Vilshana, and the cluster of villages east of Dvorichna.

However, Ukraine never seemed to actually garrison these locations north of Synkivka. Russia didn’t so much recapture them as just wander back in that direction once Ukraine had stopped operating in the area. Movements in this area have been very small until recently—like squad-level, not even platoon-level small.

It’s hard to determine how much larger the fight in the area of Kupyansk is now, but if Russia actually lost 150 men capturing Synkivka, that’s surely the biggest fight in the area since the Kharkiv counteroffensive wound down. This could be the most significant combat in this area of the entire invasion, with some claims that Russia threw thousands of troops at Synkivka. But that doesn’t mean it will make a difference tactically, much less strategically, as Ukraine’s efforts in the area appear to be more defensive. They are content, for now, to hold their positions while the counteroffensive continues in the south.

Synkivka gives Russia something to brag about and allows them to at least pretend to threaten Kupyansk, distracting from Ukrainian actions in the east and south. Whether it does anything more—or whether it was worth the cost Russia seemed to have paid for it—remains to be seen. About the only factor that would give this fight real value would be if Ukraine had to move enough reserves to the area that it had an impact on fighting elsewhere on the front. So far, when talking about the action at Kupyansk, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Even so, Kupyansk will be an area to watch for a few days. If Synkivka is quickly tipped back into Ukraine’s column, this whole affair will have no more impact than the three villages Russia gained, then lost, west of Svatove. If Russia still has Synkivka two weeks from now, that might be a concern.


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