Since the invasion of Ukraine began four months ago, Russian forces are perhaps having their greatest run.
They have upgraded their logistics and command structure, destroyed the majority of Ukrainian positions in the Luhansk region, consolidated control over a strip of land in the south, and reduced the efficacy of Ukrainian attack drones.
The Ukrainian forces have finally given up Severodonetsk and lost territory south of Lysychansk, as a result of the Russians’ sustained, some would say ruthless, bombing of the last remaining areas of the Luhansk region controlled by Ukrainian forces.
Last Friday, Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic, claimed that within two or three days, Russian soldiers will totally encircle Lysychansk. They haven’t yet, but the city is in grave danger.
In the Donetsk area, where a chain of industrial towns extends south from Sloviansk through Kramatorsk to Kostiantynivka, Russian forces have also intensified their offensive.
The Ukrainians may well experience a recurrence of what happened at Severodonetsk, when they were bombed into retiring, in Lysychansk and several of the towns scattered over the meandering front lines that traverse across five districts. Simply put, there was nothing left to defend.
The Ukrainian military is currently torn between continuing to defend Lysychansk, at the risk of losing personnel and equipment should the city come under attack, and whether to request a withdrawal to new defensive positions from the country’s political leadership.
If so, can the troops currently occupying the portion of land held by Ukraine retreat without being wiped out? The road from Lysychansk to Bakhmut is covered with wreckage in large areas, and Russian soldiers are moving into Bakhmut itself.
Despite many attempts to breach Ukrainian defenses, it appears the Russians are now making little headway from Izium in the north towards Sloviansk. However, Russian forces were “accumulating” north of Sloviansk, Ukrainian officials warned on Sunday. A few battalion tactical groups that are stationed over the border can be easily mobilized by the Russian military.
Not everyone in the Russian military blogging community is so upbeat. For example, Yuri Kotyenok feels that the Russian military lacks the manpower to completely encircle the heavily defended cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.
The Ukrainians’ best chance of reducing the firepower gap in the long run is to progressively deploy more Western weapons that can take out Russian artillery, rocket systems, and command posts located far behind the front lines.
However, training for weapons like the HIMARS rocket system, which in the form provided to Ukraine has a range of 70 kilometers (43 miles), takes several weeks. In addition, considering the strain on Ukrainian forces at the moment, a few weeks is a long time in Donbas.
Because many of the units sent to the area are among Ukraine’s most experienced, the pressure is even greater. The ferocity of the Russian bombardment has worn them down, and they are difficult to replace.
And some of the weapons that were hurried to the front have already been lost in battle by the Ukrainian troops. Last week, the Russian Ministry of Defense stated that Russian strikes had already destroyed several of the M777 howitzers that were supplied by the US.
The original and unsuccessful drive into Kyiv provided lessons for the Russian offensive. Ukrainian attack drones are less successful since air defenses, particularly the S-300, have been deployed to give widespread rather than local cover. Anecdotally, it appears that fewer videos of Ukrainian combat planes in action have been uploaded recently on social media.
Russia appoints new commanders
Under the general direction of Deputy Defense Minister Gennady Zhidko, the Russian hierarchy has also been overhauled, with new commanders for the southern and central forces committed to Ukraine.
The Russian high command is “reorganizing and reconstructing military command to better plan operations in Ukraine,” according to the Institute for the Study of War.
It may not have been a coincidence that Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, and other senior commanders made their first official visit to the troops engaged in the “special military operation” just when things appeared to be going Russia’s way. While failure is an orphan, victory has a thousand fathers.
At meetings, Zhidko sat next to Shoigu, according to Rob Lee, a Russian military specialist at King’s College London. In violation of the unity of command norm, Lee observed that it appeared that Russia “had no overall commander in the initial phase (in March).”
Whether Russian success in dismantling Ukrainian defenses in Donetsk might encourage a further expansion of its war objectives beyond the special military operation is a great unknown. Perhaps an effort will be made to maintain the momentum as far as the Dnipro river, which effectively divides Ukraine in two.
For now, it is still a remote possibility rather than an immediate risk. That is the worst-case scenario for the Ukrainians. Around 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 square miles) of Donetsk are still being defended by Ukrainian army (an area the size of Connecticut.)
Despite recent Ukrainian setbacks, there is still a ton of evidence that Russian armor is also losing soldiers at a rapid rate. Some battalion tactical groupings, according to Western authorities, have been recreated.
And Ukraine’s battlefield setbacks may have a silver lining in that they present evidence in favor of a faster Western weapons pipeline just as the G7 leaders gather.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, one of President Zelensky’s most ardent supporters, is cognizant of the danger of “Ukraine fatigue” as the battlefield seems to be shifting in Russia’s favor.
He remarked as the G7 began in Germany, “The first few weeks and months of the Ukrainian struggle have been characterized by enormous worldwide unity and a massive wave of sympathy for the Ukrainian people.”
“It is imperative that this continue long-term. The world must not accept Putin’s crimes against humanity and Russia’s actions as usual.
A similar call was made by US Vice President Joe Biden. “We must remain as a unit. Putin has been anticipating from the start that NATO and the G7 would break apart, but we haven’t and we won’t, he said.
Since there is so much at risk, neither side now shows any signs of giving in.
The crisis, according to Hal Brands’ article in Foreign Affairs, has “highlighted and deepened the basic global divide today — the battle between advanced democracies loyal to the existing international order and the Eurasian autocracies aiming to overturn it.”
However, for Putin, this conflict of his own choosing is a significant step in a larger battle against US hegemony.
The Kremlin “intends to fight a protracted conflict in Ukraine and is aiming to advance mobilization efforts to achieve long-term military and political goals in seized territories of Ukraine,” according to the Institute for the Study of War.
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