My war coverage is anchored by one simple tenet: don’t expect Russia to do something it has never proven able to accomplish. Some day, Russia might get its shit together, but in three months of war, betting against Russia has always paid off.
We may soon be able to add the Popasna salient to that list of Russian failures. That breakthrough on the eastern front was supposed to collapse Ukrainian defenses in the area, leading to the encirclement of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk. Almost two weeks later, Russia hasn’t been able to extend more than 15 kilometers from the town. Here’s the last eight days of progress:
Ukraine withdrew its forces south of Popasna to avoid encirclement, so that chunk of red looks good for Russia. But … that’s it. It’s been several days since Russia has even attempted to move. Ukraine General Staff says that “in the Bakhmut direction, russian [sic] occupiers are regrouping for a further offensive.” That was the same language used when Russia was stuck around Kyiv, and the same language when Russia got stuck around Izyum. “Regrouping for a further offensive.”
Sure, Russia may eventually get their shit together and finally prove me wrong, but I just don’t see how Russia pushes past that 15 km ring around Popasna. Remember, the further out they push, the longer the supply lines get, and the less protection those vanguard forces get from its artillery. The range of a Russian howitzer? 16 kilometers. It’s no coincidence that Russia’s offensive has stalled at the edge of its artillery range. Russian troops can only advance when artillery flattens defenses. And if that artillery is moved up closer to the front line, it makes it easier for Ukraine’s longer-range artillery and drones to find and destroy them. Ergo, they get stuck.
So let’s go back to this brilliant Reddit meme:
This meme was posted the first few days of May, when Russia really thought it could push from the Izyum salient down to Horlivka area in one massive, hundreds-of-kilometers-long sweep. The joke was that “by June, their goals will shrunk even further.” Thing is, it’s still May, and those June arrows are already obsolete. Russia has been unable to cross the Donets River near Lyman and Lysychansk, for the northern prong, and the southern prong at Popasna is dead in the water. So what’s left?
Russia’s mighty army, the second-best in their own estimation, failed to conquer Kyiv, failed to conquer Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv despite being on their border. They failed their broad encirclement of the entire Donbas region, a smaller encirclement of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, and the smallest encirclement of Lysychanks and Severodonetsk. What’s left is a direct assault on Severodonetsk against a resupplied and reinforced Ukrainian garrison. Past few days I’ve questioned the wisdom in defending the city here, here, and here. But Ukrainian General Staff likely shares my underlying philosophy—don’t expect Russia to do something it has never proven able to accomplish. As of now, Russia has taken only two large cities—Kherson via bribe and treason, and Mariupol after 2 ½ months of siege, cut off from all resupply. There’s a rational reason to believe Russia will struggle at Severodonetsk.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the southern Kherson front is picking up steam. General Staff announced that Russian troops have withdrawn from Mykolaivka after suffering “significant losses.” That city lies south of Kryvyi Rih at the administrative border of Kherson (the top-right arrow in this map below).
You can see the dashed outline of Kherson Oblast’s administrative borders on the map. I spent several months mocking what appeared to be an under-resourced attempt to reach Kryvyi Rih, but in hindsight, it’s now obvious that Russia was only interested in claiming full control of Kherson’s borders, aiming to annex it into Russia proper.
The middle arrow is the attack around Davydiv Brid, where Ukraine appears to have advanced around 9 kilometers south. This middle prong threatens supply lines for those Russian troops in north Kherson oblast, further pressuring them to fall back.
Finally, there’s fighting in Snihurivka, the bottom-left arrow on the map above. Snihurivka was briefly in Ukrainian hands after its first counter-offensive in the war back on March 17. You might recall, Russia was trying to get to Odesa, but Mykolaiv was an impenetrable fortress, so Russian forces worked their way up the Southern Bug river, trying to route around it.
A logical person might think, “If Russia couldn’t take Mykolaiv, a city of 500,000, what made them think they could take Odesa, a city of 1 million, but with a few extra hundred kilometers of supply lines?” Turns out, Russia couldn’t even get past the town of Voznesensk, population 34,000, where territorial defense forces and farmers shredded elite Russian airborne forces.
After Voznesensk, Ukrainian forces pushed Russia back 120 kilometers (75 miles), the first time Ukraine proved it could retake lost territory. Ukrainian forces got as far as Posad-Pokrovsikote and Snihurivka, until overwhelming Russian artillery halted the advance. Soon after, Russia retook Snihurivka in its push to secure the Kherson administrative borders. Back in March, Ukraine simply didn’t have the artillery resources it has today, and so was unable to press its advantage.
The territory in this region is flat and open, with little cover for advancing forces. This video shows what a typical engagement looks like, with Ukrainian artillery destroying a Russian vehicle attempting to run the gauntlet.
Two hundred American-donated M113s currently on a ship en route from the United States will prove hugely valuable in advancing amidst these artillery barrages. In fact, the brand new Ukrainian tank brigade likely part of this offensive boasts 70 Dutch M113 variants (along with 100 Polish-donated T-72s). No armored vehicle will survive a direct artillery hit, but those are rare without guided artillery shells (of which Russia has none). The key is to protect from flying shrapnel, which these vehicles do.
The situation at Snihurivka is unclear, with some Ukrainian social media sources claiming it’s been re-liberated, while Russian ones admit only to ongoing combat. I’d guess the latter until we get official confirmation or photographic evidence to the contrary.
If Ukraine can break through those defensive lines, it’s a 50 kilometer sprint down to Beryslav and Kozatske, just across the river from Nova Kakhovka, the main source of water for the entire Crimean peninsula. Kozatske is a reported location for one of those Nazi-esque “filtration camps” holding ~4,000 men from Mariupol. This pocket has immense value for Ukraine, both politically and strategically.
Wishing you all a reflective Memorial Day.
People had interpreted the Biden statement as “no MLRS for Ukraine.” Seemed clear that he meant no ATACMS missiles, which could be launched from MLRS/HIMARS launchers and have a range of nearly 200 miles. The United States has already given Ukraine weapons that can reach Russia. The two countries border each other. A hand grenade can reach Russia.
I was wrong about Russia not having precision-guided artillery shells:
Again, reinforces the difficulty of anyone to advance in this kind of open terrain with so little cover.
First video out of newly liberated Davydov Brod. Those are not the Dutch M113 variants, so this isn’t the new Ukrainian armored brigade, at least not in this prong of the Kherson counteroffensive.