Russia’s capture of the eastern Ukrainian city of Lysyhansk, which precipitated the fall of the entire Lugansk province, was hailed as a victory by Vladimir Putin. But it’s more symbolic than strategic, military experts say.
The Russian President is still far from his goal of “liberating” the entire Donbass region, of which Luhansk is one half. On Monday he ordered his forces to advance into Donetsk province, the other half of Donbass, where Ukrainians still control the cities of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut with tens of thousands of soldiers.
In order to capture the entire Donetsk region, Russian forces would have to advance towards these heavily fortified cities 50 km to 70 km west of Lysychansk and again about that much to reach the administrative border.
Despite Putin’s orders to go ahead, analysts and Ukrainian advisers say the war is likely to enter a new phase, with Kiev’s troops attempting to use advanced weapons freshly delivered from the West to cut Russian supply lines and ammunition stockpiles and rear bases to destroy rather than hold on to territory.
The capture of all of Luhansk was a significant advance in Putin’s Donbass campaign and shows that Russia’s military machine – despite intense artillery shelling – is still going strong, despite heavy casualties. Lysychansk fell faster than some Ukrainian military advisers expected.
However, when the Kremlin resumed its offensive in the Donbass region in mid-April, the Kremlin’s goal was to surround and kill or capture tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops in the so-called Joint Forces Operation, bringing a potentially fatal blow to the country’s war effort to strike.
Not only does that remain a distant prospect, but Russian troops have also failed to meet their reduced objectives of encircling Ukrainian forces in smaller “encircles” en route.
“The enemy wanted to capture the Donetsk and Luhansk regions not only within their administrative borders, but to do it through a pocket of Ukrainian forces. . . your goal was [to] Surround and destroy our group there,” said retired Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, a former deputy chief of the General Staff of Ukraine.
“We conducted operations at Severodonetsk and Lysychansk to the point where we could weaken their military might, but after they amassed forces far exceeding ours, it was necessary to withdraw our forces to avoid the pocket.”
Most of the Russian-seized Luhansk territory was taken shortly after the invasion began in February, said Oleksandr V Danylyuk, head of the Kyiv-based Defense Reform Center, a think tank. But they struggled to win the final fifth, which was neatly fought by Kyiv’s forces.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said Ukraine had managed to slow the Russian advance despite heavy casualties of up to 200 deaths a day.
“The main tasks were: to pin down the main enemy forces; inflict casualties on them; Buying time to deliver Western weapons and improving the second line of defense; To create conditions for our offensive operations in other sectors of the front,” said Arestovych.
The further west Russian troops advance, the more likely they will meet even greater resistance. After eight years of fortifications, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk were well defended by Ukrainian forces, Danylyuk said. Russia’s goal will be to get within artillery range and then bombard Ukrainian positions.
Oleksiy Melnyk, a former Ukrainian air force officer who now works at the Razumkov Center think tank in Kyiv, said not even heavy fortifications could withstand Russian artillery barrage and airstrikes. Russian guns fired tens of thousands of shells a day in Luhansk.
In order to break, or at least slow down, Russia’s artillery steamroller, Ukraine must now attack Russian supply lines with long-range weapons, particularly US-supplied multi-launch missile systems known as Himars, Melnyk said. So far, only four have been used on the battlefield, but with a range of 70 km and pinpoint accuracy, they are used to great effect.
A Ukrainian missile attack on Sunday severely damaged a major Russian air base near the occupied southern city of Melitopol, well outside the normal range of Kiev artillery. Ukraine has also attacked Russian arms depots in Donetsk province.
Kyiv needs a lot more Himars to turn the tide of the war.
“If Ukraine has more opportunities to destroy ground supply lines and ammunition depots and conduct strikes to destroy artillery positions, Russia will have to adjust its plans or, as before, significantly change them,” Melnyk said.
In addition to a shortage of artillery ammunition, Ukraine has several other weaknesses, including a lack of skilled infantry and armored vehicles to conduct offensive operations, a lack of secure radio equipment, and an inability to detect and eliminate Russian electronic warfare capabilities, according to a report by the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Russia also suffers from labor shortages and depleted stocks of modern armaments, leaving it dependent on its vastly superior artillery firepower, according to Western and Ukrainian analysts.
Putin’s order for his forces in Luhansk to “rest” while others join the battle was taken by Ukrainian analysts as a tacit admission of the heavy casualties they have suffered and a possible need to increase artillery supplies.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian counterattacks on the occupied southern city of Kherson, at the mouth of the Dnipro River, are putting pressure on Russian forces.
Although a Ukrainian attack on the city itself seems unlikely given the risk of civilian casualties, Ukraine could seek to encircle Russian troops in pockets along the river’s right bank.
“The problem for Russia is that they don’t have enough forces to secure both directions [south and east]said Mykhailo Samus, director of the New Geopolitics Research Network, who spent 12 years in the Ukrainian armed forces.
“The Ukrainian side will demonstrate their intention to play both ways. For the time being, the southern front is more important for Ukraine because of the sea and port access for exports.”