Defeated around Kyiv, Russia’s northern front is practically no more as all that’s left is mop-up duty, from finding and dismantling mines and other explosive devices, to the grizzly task of clearing dead bodies. NASA FIRMS satellite imagery, normally used to track forest fires but great at tracking a war’s front lines, showed an eerie calm last night. It was a dramatic change from March 31, when the entire area burned from both a Ukrainian offensive, as well as a massive Russian artillery and missile bombardment.
This thread will walk you through yesterday Ukrainian gains around Kyiv, Chernihiv, Krivyi Rih, and Zaporizhzhia (in the direction of Mariupol. All of these except the last appear to be Russian tactical retreats, as they actually seem to be following through their claims of refocusing their efforts on the eastern Donbas line. They’ve secured their land bridge from Crimea to Russia, now they want to crush the bulk of the Ukrainian army entrenched in defensive positions along Donbas, and push to the administrative boundaries (and maybe beyond) of the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (seen as a dashed red outline on the map below).
Russia should certainly not take its Crimea front for granted, as Ukraine marches toward occupied Kherson. But it’s clear that we have a reset of the war. The first season was The Battle for Kyiv. But it ended on a cliff-hanger, as the action shifts eastward. Let’s take a look:
On the map, the purple is pre-invasion separatist-held territory. On that contact line, both sides have a WWI-like network of defensive trenches, where they lobbed artillery shells at each other for the past eight years since the 2014 war. Remember, Russia claims Kyiv was a diversion from their real goal, the conquest of the entire Donbas region—the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk. But what is immediately obvious?
Russia hasn’t gained much land against those defensive entrenched positions.
Six weeks into this war, Russia and their sorry separatist allies have had very little luck in piercing Ukraine’s prepared defenses.
What they have managed to do is spill out north and south of their pre-war boundaries. The southern approach met up with the Russian push out of Crimea, through Kherson and Melitopol. To the north, Russia has reached toward Kharkiv.
Frustrated with their inability to punch through these defenses, Russia is trying to encircle those trenches, cutting them off from their supply lines and removing a third of Ukraine’s best forces from the board. This is why Russia is desperate to complete their occupation of Mariupol—it would free up troops to then head north. But as of now, both edges of the pincer are stuck. Let’s take a look at this map again:
There is a Ukrainian salient at Sievierodonetsk, where the city is under relentless assault from three sides. Yet the city holds on. Why won’t its defenders retreat to more defensible positions? Because the Seversky Donets runs right behind the town, and Russia’s difficulty in crossing that river has dramatically impacted its ability to attempt its pincer movement. Holding that town is existential to Ukraine’s chances in the east. So to compensate, just like in Mykolaiv, Russia has attempted to bypass town. Problem is, heading west smacks into that reservoir, the Oskii, so it has had to loop all the way north and around it to get to the next potential crossing site—Izyum.
Sievierodonetsk and Izyum (and Mariupol) are the worst places in the world tonight. Yet they hold on.
Having looped around that long reservoir, Russia now has a long-ass supply line feeding their salient around Izyum. And what do you know, Ukrainian forces have been putting pressure on Russian-held territory southeast of Kharkiv. We don’t have to go out on a limb to speculate that Ukraine aims to sever that supply line, ideally physically, but it’s now well within reach of artillery fire. It’s also not unreasonable to think that the supply route from Russian territory will soon be full of elite VDV airborne troops pulled from the Kyiv front. Izyum is the natural place for their redeployment. Let them also march through Ukrainian artillery.
This northern approach is certainly promising for Russia, but it won’t go down easily. Meanwhile, Ukraine has been busy liberating towns heading toward Mariupol, in what would be the southern approach of the pincer effort. No one should assume the going will be easy for any Russians that do decide to work their way up through the south, even if they end up taking Mariupol.
Finally, let’s assume Izyum falls, and Russia has their breakthrough behind Ukraine’s prepared defenses … then what? Russia would need to push through and hold ~200 kilometers (~120 miles) of territory. Given what we’ve seen thus far, what makes anyone think Russia would manage that kind of logistical feat? We’d be back to endless videos of burning fuel and ammo trucks in that rear approach, and good luck withstanding constant Ukrainian harassment and attack. Those suicide drones and British long-range artillery will chew up the back end of any pincer.
Ukraine’s biggest challenge in this region is the terrain—scraggly bushes and wide open fields. If Russia had a functional air force, things would look a lot differently right now. If they ever get their birds flying, things will get dicier in a hurry. But even without an air force, Russia’s drones can spot any Ukrainian force of significant size, opening it up to massive artillery and missile attack. Then again, Russia has the same problem, so it cuts both ways and truly disadvantages the attacker.
So forget about pushing into separatist territory, with their own elaborate network of defensive emplacements. (My solution is the East German model—build such an economically attractive Ukraine, Donbas will have no choice than to eventually request to rejoin.) A stalemate is very likely, with tens or hundreds of thousands dead just to get us back to where we started.
Though if we do end up going to the pre-invasion status quo, there’s really no way Vladimir Putin could spin that as a victory. And good luck selling that to the home crowd.