Russia managed to move 20 kilometers from Popasna to the southern outskirts of Lysychansk in six weeks. It managed that task by massing its artillery ahead of its lines of advance, then sending its best infantry (VDV airborne remnants and Wagner mercenaries) back and forth between Severodonetsk and the Popasna advance once artillery had reduced the next objective to rubble.
If Russia wanted to destroy Ukraine’s war-fighting capacity, it would try to surround Ukrainian defenses, choking off avenues of retreat. But earlier efforts to do just that failed, so now, Russia is happy to just push Ukrainian forces out of the way. Pulverizing the ground ahead of their advance has proven effective way to motivate Ukrainian defenders to pull back.
But it is slow going. Slooooow. Russia isn’t winning any war advancing an average of three kilometers a week, 400 meters per day. Manpower shortages are becoming more acute—Russia just approved a law allowing 17-year-olds to go straight from school to the front lines. Equipment is a serious problem, with obsolete T-62s being issued to front line units, and Russia begging Belarus for ammunition.
And even these meager advances have been greatly aided by being directly adjacent to long-held Russian proxy territory.
The push from Popasna toward Bakhmut, moving Russian forces away from their supply depots, hasn’t budged in this time. Russia still can’t extend far from its logistical hubs.
The scope of this small advance looks more impressive if you zoom in on a map, less so if you pull back. Meanwhile, look to the south, and Ukraine has picked up in a few days almost as much territory as Russia took around Popasna over the last six weeks.
We’ve mostly ignored this souther Donbas front all war, as it hasn’t budged much since the first two weeks or so of the war. This heat map of Russian troop concentrations gives us an idea how much Russia has neglected things down here:
Here’s another visualization:
Each one of those tank icons is a BTG or individual Russian unit, as both these accounts (collaboratively) track the presence of individual Russian units on the front line, offering the best (educated) guess as to what is where. (No one, however, can give us each unit’s combat effectiveness, as many, if not most, are severely understrength.)
You can see Russia has committed the bulk of its forces, over half, to the northern Donbas front (Izyum, Severodonetsk, and Popasna). Localized Ukrainian counteroffensives have forced Russia to reinforce Kherson and Kharkiv, leaving little left over for the southern Donbas. So Ukraine is pouncing:
The western advance is headed toward Polohy (pre-war population, 18,000), which has been getting get hit hard by Ukrainian artillery. Russia digging in to defend it. Both sides have decided this town is worth fighting for. Me, I’d use this offensive combat power to either push on Kherson or reinforce the Popasna advance. Ukraine disagrees, so let’s speculate why.
First, we can assume this is a target of opportunity. Fully defended, none of this would be happening.
To the right of Polohy, you see a Russian salient forming as Ukrainian forces simultaneously push down to the right of it. That approach is sparsely populated, so hard to say exactly where they’re trying to go. Maybe Volovakha?
The western prong is clearly headed toward Polohy, a key rail depot supplying a big part of this chunk of land. Earlier this month, Ukraine smashed a major ammo depot in town, proving its logistical importance to Russian forces in the area.
(The bottom video is well produced, and shows the dramatic scale of destruction of that depot.)
Capturing Polohy would clearly complicate Russian resupply efforts and expose the flanks of that Russian salient to its east. Those are nice tactical reasons to push down. But what is the strategic goal? Let’s look at the map again, pulling back a bit:
Berdiansk, Mariupol, and Melitopol are three of the four biggest priorities (along with Kherson) on Ukraine’s liberation tour. Polohy is still about 100-125 kilometers to all three of these cities, but liberation needs a first step, and Russia’s inability to cover all fronts with the necessary manpower has given Ukraine a chance to take that first step.
Russia will certainly feel the pressure and need to reinforce this corner of the map. But where will those troops come from? The Izyum grouping hasn’t budged in a month, and it’s being threatened to its west by Ukraine. Still, Russia needs it if it has any hope of threatening Sloviansk and Kramatorsk—the gateway to the rest of Ukrainian-held Donbas. The Popasna grouping is focused on Lysychansk—Vladimir Putin needs his propaganda victory. Russia can’t pull from Kherson without weakening its defense. Pulling back from northern Kharkiv would put key Russian supply lines (and the Russian city of Belgorod) within range of MLRS/HIMARS rockets.
I may question Ukraine’s refusal to focus on a single avenue of counterattack, but the tactic is clearly creating serious difficulties for Russia. It must now decide where it is most comfortable losing ground.
This is Russia’s precious “land bridge” to Crimea. It will be loathe to see it at risk. So what front will Russia weaken as a result? Because if Russia moves enough troops to stop Ukrainian advances here, that just means Ukraine will get new opportunities somewhere else.
Another Russian ammo depot goes boom.
Ukraine is like Santa on Christmas—it’s already made a list, it’s checked it twice, and now it’s time to deliver.
If you’ve read me long enough, you know that “and maintenance” is the line that most excites me. Hopefully that work is on systems not yet in theater, like M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and maybe even aircraft.