An agonizing decision faces Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his generals: Order a retreat of forces from key towns in Donbass, or face the risk of their annihilation.
Zelensky, who has adroitly taken on the mantle of warrior president since Russia’s February 24 invasion, is both fortified and trapped by public opinion. A May 24 opinion poll found that 68% of citizens in the east of Ukraine and 83% in the south are unwilling to make territorial concessions in return for peace.
In this vein, he has angrily rebuked elder US statesman Henry Kissinger, who suggested that Ukraine give up some territory in return for peace talks. Kissinger’s “calendar is not 2022, but 1938,” Zelensky fumed, referring to the territorial concessions made to invading Nazi Germany in the Sudetenland that presaged World War II.
But his surging defiance is running into a wall of hard facts on the ground in the fierce fighting that has engulfed the eastern provinces of Donbass. As of yesterday, some 40 settlements were under attack in the region, where Russian forces have over the last week been accelerating their momentum.
While Ukraine’s army continues to hold a battered frontline, it is now facing extreme peril. Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said combat in Donbass is underway at “maximum intensity.”
Ukraine’s precarious positions
There are multiple indications that the fighting is swinging in Russia’s favor, ranging from the agonized statements of Ukrainian leaders to the changing arrows on situation maps to reports from the ground.
After six weeks of heavy fighting, the cone-shaped Ukrainian front in the Donbass remains a deep but much-reduced salient – i.e. a position surrounded on three sides by enemy forces.
Worsening that situation, four smaller salients within the bigger front have now been created. A salient is vulnerable to being pinched off, forming a kessel (cauldron) – i.e. a pocket of surrounded troops. The only hope for troops in a kessel is to swiftly break out, or await a counter-attacking relief force. The alternatives are surrender or annihilation.
The most dangerous situation is in the deep, eastern tip of the Ukrainian salient: The towns of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.
“Russian forces continued steady advances around Severodonetsk and likely seek to completely encircle the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area in the coming days,” the US-based Institute for the Study of War warned in a May 26 report.
The area is reportedly defended by two brigades of troops.
In the city of Severodonetsk – which had a pre-war population of 101,000 but which reports say has shrunk to 15,000 as of this week – Russian forces have advanced to the point that they are within mortar range of the city.
An 82mm mortar has a range of 3,000 – 5,000 meters, meaning that the town is now under direct threat of infantry assault.
Making the situation doubly perilous, there is reportedly only one operational bridge over the Sverodonetsk River to the west/rear of the city. The pincers have not yet closed: A Sky News team reported from inside the city in a bulletin dated today.
But it is a fragile link.
In the best possible case, this single bridge means the defenders’ line of communications (LOC), up which supplies and ammunition run and down which wounded are evacuated, is hugely vulnerable.
In the worst possible case, if Ukrainian forces in the town are forced or permitted to retreat (withdrawal in contact with the enemy is the most dangerous operation of war), then the bridge could become a deadly choke point.
Even the usually bullish UK intelligence update was, on May 27, downbeat on the situation – referring to the situation as a “pocket” and noting that Russian troops had seized several villages near Popasna.
Just to the west of Severodonetsk, the city of Lysychansk (pre-war population: 103,000) is also highly vulnerable. A 15-kilometer Russian advance north from the strategic town of Poposna, captured by Russia this month, combined with a 10-20-kilometer thrust south from Rubizhne and/or Kremina would turn Sverodonets/Lysychansk into a kessel.
Ukrainian forces have repeatedly shown their effectiveness in repelling attacks. Even so, a source familiar with military affairs was blunt. “I think it’s only a matter of time now,” he told Asia Times.
Russia’s grinding advance
Despite the extremely vulnerable state of the Ukrainian front in Donbass, the Russian High Command has, in six weeks of combat, failed to deliver a decisive blow. Instead, its advance is marked by utmost prudence.
The fighting thus far has been more of a World War I–style battle, seen in firepower-heavy offensives with artillery the key arm. What had been anticipated by both military pundits and the Ukrainian government was a sweeping World War II-style armored campaign – the “deep penetration” armored operations beloved of Russian military exercise planners.
While a storm on Sverodonestk is anticipated within days or hours, it offers far more modest gains – assuming a Russian victory, that is – than broader pincer operations. The frailty of the Ukrainian deployment in Donbass means those operations beckon further west.
One such operation could feasibly be launched north from Horlivka and south from Lyman, which would cover approximately 100 kilometers. Or, at the extreme western edge of the salient, an operation could be launched south from Izium and north from Donetsk, with the pincers meeting at the key road and rail hubs of Kramatorsk and/or Sloviansk. That would cover approximately 140 kilometers.
However, Russian units continue to face heavy Ukrainian resistance at Izium and seem unable to make southward progress.
The broader question is whether Russian forces, heavily attrited in earlier fighting, are confident enough to undertake such ambitious mobile operations.
One major maneuver that the Russians attempted – a pontoon crossing of the Sverodonetsk River on May 9 – ended disastrously, with most of a Battalion Tactical Group shattered by Ukrainian artillery.
Indications are that Russia seeks to carve the big Ukrainian salient in the Donbass into bite-sized kessels that can be reduced deliberately.
On May 24, Moscow’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, according to Russian media Novosti, that Russia was slowing its offensive “in order to allow evacuation and avoid civilian casualties.”
That pronouncement has since been widely ridiculed. But the slow and deliberate offensive makes sense from a military perspective, said one expert.
“They don’t want to screw it up again,” said the military source, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he did not have permission to speak to the media. “There is nothing to lose by taking smaller chunks and more achievable objectives.”
That strategy appears to be working.
German and US sources, citing GPS measurements, told Asia Times on May 26 that Russia had taken more territory in Donbass in the prior six days than they had seized in the first three weeks of the month.
Gradualist assault could win the day
The ongoing success of this gradualist assault contradicts the opinions of some observers, who say offensives have been obviated by current-generation defensive weapons.
Likewise, those who say the tank is obsolete are contradicted by footage from Mariupol that shows how devastatingly effective direct fire from Russian tanks – boasting optical sights, powerful guns and heavy frontal armor – was at obliterating defensive positions in buildings.
And ongoing developments suggest Russian commanders have learned from errors made in the war’s earlier phases.
Then, a multiplicity of objectives inevitably resulted in a failure to concentrate force – the key principle of offensive warfare. That situation – exacerbated by a non-unified command structure and narrow-front, road-bound charges – resulted in tactical failures, as well as losses of men, material and prestige.
Ukraine was granted an information war windfall that was widely disseminated via Western media and social media. But the blitz of Russian humiliations may have blinded Western publics to current, grimmer realities.
With major forces withdrawn from the north – though fighting continues in the northeast to protect Russian LOCs to and from Belgorod – and from the south now that Mariupol has finally fallen, the Kremlin has reinforced their Donbass forces.
Moreover, the weather and terrain now favor the Russian attackers in ways they did not in the war’s earlier phase.
From late February through to early May, the annual spring thaw which turned the ground to mud forced Russian armor onto road networks. There, they and their supply convoys were easily contained and ambushed.
Now that the ground is firm they can flexibly deploy armor and self-propelled artillery off-road. The long days and open spaces of Donbass favor broad-front maneuver.
So major mobile operations could still take place. If Ukrainian forces are dislocated, Russian armor could be unleashed in pursuit of operations to turn retreat into rout.
“I suspect that once the dominoes start falling, they will fall quickly,” said the military source.
That would be a disaster for Ukraine – for the situation in Donbass is far more critical than in Mariupol, the site of ferocious street fighting.
Mariupol wiped two light units – a battalion of the crack, far-right Azov Regiment and an independent marine brigade – off Kiev’s order of battle.
In Donbass, the Ukrainian Army’s main force heavy units – motorized infantry brigades, airmobile brigades, and artillery and armored units – are fighting. They are likely irreplaceable.
But not every factor favors the Russian attackers. Longer-term manpower and firepower matrices lean toward Ukraine.
Thanks to an emergency mobilization, Ukraine is a nation under arms and the population has shown it will fight stubbornly and well to defend their country. Meanwhile, the weapons pipeline from the West is constantly expanding, so heavier and heavier weapons are moving through it – from shoulder-fired missiles in the war’s early stages to heavy artillery and armored vehicles now.
Questions, however, hang over the operational capabilities of Kiev’s undertrained manpower pool and whether its individuals and groups can effectively fill ranks in depleted regular units.
When it comes to the arms pipeline, Russia is claiming some success in both interdicting supply and destroying equipment at the front line. But all indications are that Western weapons will continue to arrive in Ukraine.
Given the shortage of the Warsaw Pact munitions used by Ukrainian forces on the open market, multiple weapons being supplied by the West now use NATO-standard ammunition – from assault rifles to heavy artillery.
Russian manpower is limited as the Kremlin relies on professional forces rather than the full strength of its conscript-manned army. The pressure is telling: On May 25, President Vladimir Putin offered higher pay for professional soldiers, while the Duma raised the age of entry from 40 to 50.
And as Moscow continues to redeploy BTGs from front to front in Ukraine, it is unclear how long effectiveness can be maintained before attrition and exhaustion take their toll. Morale has proven problematic in some cases.
Russia especially appears to be suffering from an infantry shortfall, which explains the prominence of irregular forces in street fighting – a particularly dangerous format of combat.
In the fierce battle for Poposna, Wagner Group mercenaries and Chechen light infantry were key combatants. Chechens and Donbass militiaman similarly took prominent roles in Mariupol.
Material losses will pressure Russia’s arms industry, which faces heavy Western sanctions. UK intelligence noted in a Twitter briefing that Russia is taking T62 tanks out of mothballs to deploy to Ukraine. The model was first introduced in 1961.
Russia’s expenditure of munitions – especially smart munitions – is also under stress. A US intelligence source told Asia Times that Russian artillery munitions may run dry within 12 months – though it seems likely that the war’s key blows will have been struck by then.
While Donbass hangs in the balance, both sides can claim certain victories.
Ukraine defeated Russia’s coup de main operation in the early days of the war, then prevented Russian forces from encircling the capital of Kiev and the second city of Kharkiv. By driving attackers into retreat, Ukraine won a victory in the north. That ensured the survival of the Ukrainian state and kept the two main population centers within Kiev’s orbit.
But in the south, Russia’s seizure of the city of Kherson guarantees the security and water security of Crimea. The hard-fought capture of Mariupol cut Ukraine off from the Azov Sea while anchoring separatist Donetsk to the coast and securing a key node on the east-west coastal corridor linking Crimea to Russia proper.
That makes the score one-one.
But Donbass is not the only focus of battle. Russian forces are massing forces for what may be a renewed push north up the Dniepr Valley. If the Russians capture Zaporizhzhia, they will be well-positioned to cut the Dniepr, a key economic transit corridor for Ukrainian shipping into the Black Sea.
Elsewhere, there are indications that Russia is preparing for a renewed assault on Mykolaiv in the south – the land gateway to the Black Sea port of Odessa. A US military source told Asia Times, without offering details, that briefers expect the latter city to fall in July.
If accurate, that would be a shock outcome. Already cut off from the Azov Sea, Ukraine would then find its access to the Black Sea removed, making the country a land-locked state.
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