Just 25km of terrain stays earlier than Russia utterly encircles a fiercely contested pocket of Ukrainian resistance within the jap Donbas area, the place Moscow has stepped up its offensive over the previous month.
For days, punishing artillery strikes have crumbled Ukrainian defences across the metropolis of Sievierodonetsk, the world the place “the greatest activity of hostilities is taking place”, in keeping with the Ukrainian military.
If the occupying forces reach surrounding the Ukrainian troops there, it might be Russia’s second profitable navy encirclement — the primary got here on the port of Mariupol final week after a three-month siege — and so of symbolic significance to Moscow. Russia would then management all of Luhansk province, which along with neighbouring Donetsk makes up the Donbas.
But it is usually a small space, signalling how Russian ambitions have shrunk since mid-April, when its navy shifted focus after fierce Ukrainian resistance compelled it to desert makes an attempt to take Kyiv. Russian-backed separatists already managed elements of the Donbas earlier than Moscow ordered the full-blown invasion of its neighbour three months in the past.
The battle for Sievierodonetsk illustrates the way in which the combating is prone to proceed over the summer time: a grinding warfare of attrition the place the decisive elements would be the dimension of every drive and the way nicely outfitted they’re, western officers and analysts mentioned.
Serhiy Haidai, Ukraine’s navy governor of Luhansk, informed native tv over the weekend that Russia’s “scorched-earth tactics” sought to “wipe Sievierodonetsk off the face of the earth”. Russian shelling killed 4 civilians in bomb shelters on the Azot chemical plant on Monday and 4 extra within the metropolis itself, Haidai mentioned.
Russian forces additionally this week captured the economic city of Svitlodarsk within the south of Donbas. Serhiy Hoshko, head of Svitlodarsk’s navy administration, informed Ukrainian website Free Radio that the Russians had raised their nation’s flag over the mayor’s workplace and have been conducting patrols to examine locals’ paperwork. Russian-backed separatists claimed they have been “purging” the city of “hostile elements”.
“The Russian army is not a spent force yet,” mentioned Samuel Cranny-Evans, a navy analyst on the Royal United Services Institute, a London think-tank. “It is still fighting, still making advances and still causing Ukrainian losses.”
Those losses may very well be important. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, has mentioned 50-100 of its troopers could also be dying on daily basis. In common, about thrice extra fighters are wounded than are killed in battle, so Ukraine may very well be shedding about 1,000 troopers each three days, Cranny-Evans mentioned.
Yet by holding again the Russians as an alternative of retreating, these troops are shopping for time for the remainder of Ukraine’s forces to be provided with western weaponry, together with long-range artillery that may permit them to shell Russian artillery positions behind the entrance strains.
The US has despatched 90 M-777 long-range howitzers to Ukraine however solely a dozen have reportedly reached the entrance and Ukrainian troopers are nonetheless being educated to make use of the remaining. Zelensky has mentioned Russia’s weapons outnumber Ukraine’s by 20 to at least one.
“By having those forces continue to fight, they are fulfilling an important military function,” a western official mentioned. “Degrading Russian capability . . . and creating time for Ukrainian forces to improve their defences elsewhere.”
Meanwhile Russian casualty charges seem to have fallen from their excessive preliminary ranges. According to Ukrainian figures, 23,000 Russian troops have been killed within the first two months of the assault, falling within the third month to six,000.
That suggests Russian troops are avoiding participating as straight as earlier than and are largely leaving the assault to artillery barrages, analysts mentioned. The capture of hilly ground across the city of Popsana, for instance, has enabled Russian artillery to dominate the world round Sievierodonetsk.
Russia has additionally deployed 10 so-called BMP-T “Terminator” armoured autos, that are mounted with heavy cannon and are designed to offer suppressing fireplace to assist extract troopers that could be pinned down.
Even so, Russia’s military has its personal personnel and gear issues. According to the Ukrainian military, it has withdrawn previous T-62 tanks from storage to re-equip partially destroyed battalions.
It has additionally needed to reconstitute battalion tactical teams, the military’s major combating unit, from different partially destroyed BTGs.
This “highlights serious manpower issues and the inability to create . . . formations to exploit gaps made by advancing units”, Rochan Consulting, a Poland-based navy consultancy, mentioned.
But whereas Russian forces might battle to maintain the offensive, analysts say, western and Ukrainian officers warn Kyiv lacks sufficient heavy weapons to counter-attack successfully. Until Ukraine’s navy is bolstered — on Tuesday Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksii Reznikov mentioned he would quickly announce some “unpleasant” surprises for Ukraine’s enemy — the result’s prone to be a stalemate.
“Imagine that Russian forces finally take Severodonetsk, then what?” mentioned Pavel Luzin, a Russian-based navy analyst. “Strategically it changes little . . . [and] most of the Russian army’s artillery range is less than 25km. So [Russian president Vladimir] Putin can’t destroy all of Ukraine’s cities, everywhere.”