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Western artillery is already impacting the Battle of Donbas, and more is on the way

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An American-suppled M777 howitzer, in action in eastern Ukraine.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord chieftain of Chechnya and a staunch Vladimir Putin ally, has claimed total and complete Russian control of Severodonetsk. He claimed full control of Mariupol about two dozen times (no exaggeration) before Russia actually, finally, expelled all Ukrainian defenders. In other words, he’s full of shit. 

So the fight continues as Ukraine reinforces the city, while observers scratch their heads in confusion. Why is there so much effort expended on such an non-strategic city? I’ve certainly pondered the question the last two days (here and here). Why not a third day in a row? But we’ve been looking at the question from Ukraine’s point of view. The Institute for the Study of War is similarly perplexed, but approaches it from Russia’s point of view.: 

Russian President Vladimir Putin is inflicting unspeakable suffering on Ukrainians and demanding horrible sacrifices of his own people in an effort to seize a city that does not merit the cost, even for him […]

Putin is now hurling men and munitions at the last remaining major population center in [ oblast, Severodonetsk, as if taking it would win the war for the Kremlin. He is wrong […]

Severodonetsk itself is important at this stage in the war primarily because it is the last significant population center in Luhansk Oblast that the Russians do not control. Seizing it will let Moscow declare that it has secured Luhansk Oblast fully but will give Russia no other significant military or economic benefit. This is especially true because Russian forces are destroying the city as they assault it and will control its rubble if they capture it.

Lots of people will die for a pile of rubble, all in the name of propaganda. Russia wants it to declare all of Luhansk Oblast captured, and Ukraine wants it to deny Russia that propaganda victory. If Ukraine wants to bleed Russia, there is a vastly more defensible position literally across the river at Lysychansk. 

Ukraine has made a habit of exceeding expectations. Let’s hope they do it again in Severodonetsk.

Russia’s salient at Izyum is still stuck dead in the water, and the one at Popasna is struggling, going on three days without any major gains. 

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If you’re Russia, Bakhmut is the obvious target, a crossroad for several major highway supplying Ukrainian troops in the Severodonetsk salient. It is only 32 kilometers (20 miles) from Popasna, yet Russia has only advanced half that distance in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance. Observers are marveling at Russia’s new “combined arms” capabilities in this offensive, but what they’re really saying is that Russian artillery and air support are softening defenses before Russia tries to march in. In the end, that only seems to work for them as long as their artillery is near supply railheads, and as long as their aircraft don’t need to go too deep into Ukrainian territory. Russia’s problem is that the deeper they stretch into Ukrainian territory, the more exposed they get to Ukrainian artillery, particularly the deeper-range American/Canadian/Australian M777s and French Caesars. Able to outrange Russian guns, we’ll see more and more of this: 

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This picture below tells you all you need to do about the primacy of artillery in the Battle of the Donbas. Farmers will be harvesting shrapnel for generations.

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Western allies are flooding Ukraine with more artillery guns. Some of them are even surprises, like the American M109 self-propelled gun (finally!): 

The U.S. never announced these, so it shows that weapons shipments have continued unabated. With over1,000 M109s in the American arsenal (and who knows how many older variants in retirement), the U.S. can seriously bolster Ukraine’s defensive and offensive capabilities. The U.S. is finishing up delivery of 107 M777s and their supply vehicles drawn from the Marine Corps stock, since they are transitioning to HIMARS rocket artillery. But there are still another 900 or so M777s left in American hands, so between the two platforms and MLRS/HIMARS, the U.S. has a buttload of heavy metal to share. 

Anyway, there is heavy fighting around Popasna, but Russia appears contained as Ukraine rushes more reinforcements to that front. Russia took Lyman a couple of days ago, but it turns out that Ukraine continues to operate in the thick forests south of the city. It’s an interesting decision, given that Ukraine blew all the bridges in that direction, and those troops could’ve have been easily withdrawn to more defensible positions. But so long as Russia has to keep troops around Lyman hunting these guerrilla-style defenders, those are forces that can’t be moved to Severodonetsk itself. And everything in this area seems calibrated toward bleeding Russia’s war machine dry while buying time for Western weapons to arrive and reserve forces to spin up. 

Ukraine’s Kherson counter-offensive, which I wrote up yesterday based on Russian social media reports, was officially confirmed by Ukrainian General Staff. 

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Ukraine generally doesn’t announce their moves. They never did around Kharkiv, waiting several days to even announce the liberation of any towns. They certainly never announced the counter-offensive putting pressure on the Izyum salient from the west and northwest. So why announce this one? 

The Kherson area is Russia’s least resourced, mostly a handful of light infantry units (like airborne, naval infantry, and Rosgvardia—Putin’s repressive national guard). The area is so weak, Russia has been sending museum-relic T-62s to reinforce its southern approach. If Russia is vulnerable anywhere, it’s down here. So there’s a good chance Ukraine’s counter-offensive is a feint, designed to panic Russia into peeling off critical forces from the Donbas front to reinforce an exposed Kherson and, perhaps more importantly, Nova Kahkovka—the source of water for the entire Crimean peninsula. 

It’s a win-win for Ukraine—Russia reinforces this southern approach, it takes pressure off defenders in the Donbas. Russia ignores it, and Ukraine has an opportunity to retake serious territory and make a mess of Russia’s efforts to annex Kherson Oblast into Russia. Time will tell how this shakes out. 

On another note, you may have noticed a great deal of Ukrainian MiG-29 videos the last few days. 

Ukraine suddenly appears to have dozens of MiG-29s in the air. The official explanation is that western allies sent “spare parts” to repair MiGs destroyed during Russia’s initial bombardment of Ukrainian airfields wink-wink. Between Poland, Bulgaria, and Slovakia, there were 55 potential MiG-29s for Ukraine, though many of those were reportedly not in airworthy condition. Would be nothing to disassemble them into “spare parts” to reassemble back in Ukraine. In fact, I’d bet on it. 

One last bit of circumstantial evidence—when was the last time Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or anyone else begged the West for MiG-29s? In fact, the last few weeks have all been about MLRS, MLRS, MLRS. Odds are good allies have emptied their stocks of Soviet-era aircraft for Ukraine, so it can now focus on other needs. 

Biden’s aid announcement next week should prove incredibly interesting. In addition to more artillery cannons and MLRS rockets, look to see if the U.S. bolsters Western shipments of Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Denmark and the U.K. Denmark doesn’t have the longest-range versions of the missile, but it has rare land-based launchers. If the U.S. provides the newest versions of the missile, Russia’s massive naval base in Sevastopol, at the southern tip of Crimea, will suddenly be in range and in play. 

It will also be interesting to see if Patriot air defense rockets are included. The problem is training—maintenance technicians require a year training just for basic proficiency. If the United States provides them, Ukraine will need Western contract personnel to handle maintenance and on-the-job training. Finally, Ukraine’s biggest need aside from artillery is armor. American tanks are a logistical nightmare, even using jet fuel to power its turbine engines. Maintaining them requires six months of training for basic proficiency. But M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles could be an easier lift (the U.S. has over 6,000, and they’re being phased out), not to mention hundreds more Humvees, M113s, and other armored transport vehicles. 

Getting Ukraine more heavy tanks is a serious challenge with no easy solutions—a topic for another time. 



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