It was more a question of when, rather than if, the remaining Ukrainian units in the eastern city of Severodonetsk would be withdrawn.
Over the past few weeks, Russian forces have simply destroyed any defensive positions the Ukrainians have taken, pushing them back into a few square blocks in and around the city’s Azot chemical plant.
Ukrainian forces in Severodonetsk held out longer than many observers expected, forcing the Russians and their allies to devote resources to the city that could have been used to push the offensive elsewhere.
But the Ukrainian army had clearly decided that there was nothing left to defend – and that the hundreds of civilians sheltering in the factory were in greater danger every day.
According to the Institute for War, an American think tank that closely follows the campaign, “the loss of Severodonetsk is a loss for Ukraine in the sense that any ground captured by Russian forces is a loss — but the battle of Severodonetsk will not be a decisive victory for Russia.”
Now the battle moves across the Siverskiy Donets River to Lysychansk, the last town of Lugansk held by Ukrainian forces. And there are already signs that the Russians will use the same ruthless area bombing tactic to crush Ukrainian forces, deploying fighter jets, multiple launch rocket systems and even short-range ballistic missiles such as the Tochka-U.
Serhiy Hayday, the head of the Luhansk regional military administration, noted on Friday: “There is a lot of military equipment. According to our information, at least six Tochka-U left in the direction of Lysychansk from Starobilsk only. Only one is powerful enough to destroy — six is a total disaster.”
The loss of Severodonetsk – and, potentially, Lysychansk in the coming days – may have factored into Ukrainian calculations, given the overwhelming firepower of Russian forces and the apparent improvement in logistics. Russian since the abandonment of the campaign against Kyiv. But every town and city defended provides an opportunity to degrade the enemy.
Large areas of the neighboring Donetsk region are still under Ukrainian control. The regional military administration claims that around 45% of Donetsk is held by Ukrainian forces, including the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
There are not many obvious defensive positions west of Lysychansk in an open countryside area. Ukrainian commanders will have to decide whether to abandon the entire pocket – bravely defended for weeks – for a more consolidated defense of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Kostiantynivka, Donetsk’s industrial belt.
The question is whether the losses inflicted on Russian forces in recent weeks will harm their ability and desire to gobble up more territory, especially as Ukraine deploys more precise Western weapons such as rocket systems. HIMARS.
Similarly, it is unclear whether the punishment endured by Ukrainian units in the Donbas region over the past two months has left them with enough resources to launch counterattacks against the Russian flanks (as they attempted against Russian forces advancing from the Kharkiv region to the north.)
The Kremlin did not deviate from its ultimate goal of taking all of Donetsk and Lugansk. It now has almost all of these. The completion of the “special military operation” will still take weeks, if not months, if at all. It has become a classic attrition war.