World · June 21, 2022

Severodonetsk: Two months later, Russia is still struggling to take over this small Ukrainian town

Ukraine’s fierce defense of Severodonetsk, despite heavy casualties, forced the Russians to concentrate firepower on a relatively small area and slowed down efforts to seize 10% of the Luhansk region they still do not control.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared the seizure of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Eastern Donetsk regions as one of the targets of the Moscow special military operation that began in February. For now, that operation is largely blocked; much of Donetsk remains beyond the reach of the Russians.

Russian forces are making modest gains: the Russian Defense Ministry said Sunday that the town of Metelkino, just southeast of Severodonetsk, has been taken. But the Russians’ goal of encircling Ukrainian troops to defend the twin cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk still seems far away.

In a campaign devoid of agility and imagination, the Russians resorted to one main tactic: crushing indirect fire on all Ukrainian positions, regardless of collateral destruction.

The goal is to leave nothing standing that can be defended. The use of ground troops to conquer and maintain urban areas has been less frequent and less successful.

Smoke rises from the city of Severodonetsk as seen from Lysychansk, Ukraine's Luhansk region on June 8, 2022.

In a video of Ukrainian special forces in the area released over the weekend, an unidentified Ukrainian soldier claims: “They are throwing everything they have, all the ammunition they have. It doesn’t matter to them if it’s our positions or civilian areas, they clean up. all from the face of the earth and then use the artillery and then begin to advance little by little. ”

In the midst of intense urban fighting, some 500 civilians, including dozens of children, fled to the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk. Unlike Mariupol’s Azovstal plant, it offers little protection underground. Ukrainian officials say people there, who previously refused to leave, have food supplies but can no longer be evacuated from the plant due to the intense fighting.

But as with Azovstal, the Azot plant and its immediate vicinity became the focal point of the Ukrainian resistance, frustrating Russian commanders.

According to the Washington Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank, “Russian troops are likely facing increasing casualties and the degradation of troops and equipment that will complicate attempts to renew offensive operations in other critical locations as the slow battle for Severodonetsk continues. ”

Just as the defense of Mariupol involved more than a dozen battalion battle groups, so the overcoming of the resistance in Severodonetsk is proving laborious.

Reject resistance

The Ukrainians say they have inflicted heavy casualties on Russian forces in the area, in part thanks to new equipment from the Western Allies, including anti-tank weapons and long-range howitzers supplied by the United States and France. On Saturday, the Ukrainian Armed Forces said units of Russia’s 11th Separate Motor Rifle Regiment had suffered significant casualties and were “withdrawn from the combat operations area to restore combat capability.”

However, Ukrainian supply lines are constantly under attack and it has become more difficult to ferry supplies from further west into the Donetsk region along the highway to Lysychansk.

ISW still predicts that “Russian forces will likely be able to seize Severodonetsk in the coming weeks, but at the cost of concentrating most of their available forces in this small area.”

A Ukrainian military man walks into a trench at a position held by the Ukrainian army between the southern cities of Mykolaiv and Kherson on June 12, 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The tactics of the Russians so far suggest a campaign to crack down on resistance south of the city – in places like Syrotyne – and then attack Ukrainian defenses from different directions.

Ukrainian officials say the Russians are increasingly using drones to identify their defensive positions. “The Russian army monitors the air day and night with drones, adjusts firepower, adapts quickly to our changes in defensive areas,” said Serhii Hayday, head of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration.

Western support for Kiev must not cease, say NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Elsewhere, along an active front line extending more than 1,000 kilometers (more than 620 miles), little territory is currently given up or taken.

The main goals of the Russians in Donbas are to take over the industrial city and transport hub of Sloviansk and the city of Bakhmut, both in Donetsk, but they have made very limited progress towards both goals. They may also be vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks south and west of the city of Izium.

Southern Ukraine represents a different picture. The Russians seem to consolidate the conquests gained in the first days of the war, along lines that allow them to defend a coastal strip in depth. The Ukrainian counterattacks towards the city of Kherson have made limited progress, as the Russians are now well established and show little appetite for trying to conquer more territory.

As British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Sunday after his second visit to Kiev: “Time is the vital factor. It will all depend on whether Ukraine can strengthen its ability to defend its soil faster than it can. Russia can renew its attack capacity “.

Fragile morale

Some of the best Ukrainian military units were punished while defending Donbas. Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told CNN last week that tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been killed since the Russian invasion began on February 24. Probably the vast majority were soldiers.

The UK Ministry of Defense assessed this weekend that Ukrainian forces have likely suffered desertions in recent weeks, although it believes Russian morale is much more fragile.

Hence, it is not only about providing accurate long-range weapons to the Ukrainian forces, but also about intensifying training. Johnson is pushing a plan whereby the Allies develop the potential to train up to 10,000 soldiers every 120 days.

Despite their losses, and even as they deploy vintage T62 tanks in some places, the Russian forces maintain tremendous superiority in armor and combat aviation. And despite a weighty and predictable strategy, they can continue to obliterate Ukrainian defenses. Over the weekend, a video surfaced revealing the extent of the destruction in Lyman, near Sloviansk, just as Popasna and Rubizhne further east were razed to the ground in April.

But with an accelerated flow of weapons capable of blunting Russia’s advantage in heavy artillery and missile systems, Ukrainian forces could still prevent the enemy from inflicting such devastation on more towns and cities further west.