All anyone has to do is tune into pro-Russian Twitter—or U.S. right-wing media—to discover that Russia’s plans for Ukraine are both simple and brilliant. It works like this: In order to capture the Donbas, Russia invaded everywhere that was not the Donbas. Like the area north of Kyiv, and the border region at Chenihiv, and Sumy, and all the areas around Kharkiv, and in the south around Kherson. And then Russia, simply and brilliantly, went on to lose 20,000 men, dozens of aircraft, hundreds of tanks, and thousands of vehicles while slaughtering villages, dusting off the term “rape and pillage” for a new generation, and in general racking up a list of crimes against humanity that is making Pol Pot spin in his nonexistent grave.
(Author’s note: After he died in prison, Pot’s body was literally put on ice until enough people could view his frozen corpse to make sure there would be no rumors the mass-murdering SOB was still alive. Then he was cremated by throwing his body on a stack of burning tires and trash. There’s no word that anyone bothered to collect what was left. That’s the kind of funeral planning that ought to be kept on file.)
Listening to Russian media, or pro-Russian Twitter, or far-right evangelicals who have suddenly decided to join the Russian Orthodox Church because they like the “traditions”—all that stuff was just a feint designed to distract Ukrainian forces from Russia’s real goals in the Donbas. You have to particularly like the part where Russia had their own troops dig trenches in the “red forest” around Chernobyl, exposing themselves to a few hundred lifetime doses of radiation in a week. That’s real commitment to a role.
Except if all that was a feint designed to distract Ukraine, why are Ukraine’s repeated victories in the area around Kharkiv suddenly causing such concern to Russia that they are shifting forces away from the Donbas?
On Monday, Ukrainian forces reportedly quick-marched northwest from the area of Staryi Slativ to capture the town of Ternova and the surrounding area, putting them right on the border with Russia and dividing Russia’s area of control in Ukraine. This action still has not been confirmed by official sources in the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, but has been repeated by knowledgeable sources on the ground. With the capture of Ternova, and over a dozen other villages and towns in the Kharkiv area in the last two weeks, Russian forces in Kharkiv oblast are reduced to not just a small area north of the hard-hit city, but an area that is difficult to hold and to supply.
That result is generating two statements that seem to be at odds. On Monday, Ukrainian officials stated that Russia was withdrawing some if not all of their troops from the Kharkiv region. Reports had indicated that as of last week, Russia had three Battalion Tactical Groups in the area, and that has proven to be utterly insufficient to hold positions as Ukraine has advanced from town to town. Withdrawing from the area and just ceding the area west of the Siverskyi Donets River seems reasonable.
So why, in addition to reports that Russia is abandoning its small, pointless, and increasingly difficult to support positions north of Kharkiv, are there also reports like this one:
That Ukrainian actions in Kharkiv are impacting Russian movements from Izyum is also the assessment of U.S. intelligence. But why? Why is Russia dragging forces back to the north, even as it also reportedly tries to withdraw forces from the same area?
It’s probably because of reports like the one in this Telegram message. The message is from Russian sources, and spends most of its time talking about May 9 celebrations, praising the firing of missiles into Odesa, and claiming that Ukraine has lost dozens of UAVs and boats trying to retake Snake Island. However, it also includes this:
“In the northeast of Kharkiv region, we continue to record the enemy's advance towards our border. Now the enemy is near Vovchansk. But to continue the offensive, he will have to ford the Siverskyi Donets. And it's not so easy to do. It will be difficult for the enemy to advance further.”
With the rapid movements of Ukrainian forces to take first Staryi Slativ and then Ternova, it’s clear to the Russians that Ukraine is not practicing the Russian technique of spending days pulverizing a town with artillery, then slowly advancing into the ruins. Ukraine is moving quickly, and not always in the direction that analysts might predict.
Russia has blown up the bridges at Staryi Saltiv, Rubiznhe, Starytsya, and Ohirtseve. Which is all of the bridges on the northern Donets. But the river is only 30 meters wide at Ohirtseve, and less than 50 meters wide at Starytsya. These are the kinds of distances that engineering units with pontoon bridges were designed to tackle. Even all the way down at Staryi Saltiv, where the river is dammed into a reservoir over 1,500 meters across, the actual span of bridge that was taken down was much smaller. Ukraine has been directing artillery at the area around the other end of that bridge, which may be a sign that they believe the Staryi Saltiv bridge could be repaired.
In any case, the Russian forces moving north away from Izyum are unlikely to be getting dragged back into Russia, then fed back down the pipeline to hold onto positions like Pertrivka and Kozacha Lopan. Because what do those positions matter anyway? They were important when Russia occupied a ring of villages around Kharkiv because Russian supplies coming down the road from Belgorod through the entry port just east of Kozacha Lopan keep the shells falling on Ukraine’s second largest city. (Note: If you haven’t already seen it, UnHerd reporter David Patrikarakos has a terrific, informative, and heartbreaking piece up about how Kharkiv has suffered after weeks of constant assaults from Russian forces).
But those Russian positions are not allowing them to keep pressure on Kharkiv at this point. Absolutely the only purpose they are serving is to occupy the attention of some Ukrainian forces that are whittling back Russia’s area of control day by day. Those Ukrainian forces are just about to get to the point where the ugly phrase “mopping up” starts showing up in the media. And yes, Russia could put in more forces just to keep Ukraine fighting in the area, but pumping forces into these locations is just another way of throwing them away.
It may be difficult to tell on this slightly 3D-ish map from Google Earth, but Staryi Saltiv is on high ground with woods on two sides and the river on another. This should have made this an extremely difficult area to assault. Ukraine took it. Ukrainian troops have captured multiple points that had both strategic importance in terms of their location in the region, and tactical advantages in terms of the battlefield conditions. This does not appear to be true of Russia’s remaining positions in the area (with the possible exception of the area between Lyptsi and Kozachan Lopan, where Russian forces were reportedly digging into defensive positions).
All this means that the only thing any Russian forces in Kharkiv oblast can do at this point is defend unimportant crossroads in areas where holding those points provides no benefit to Russia. Also, they will likely lose these locations anyway. Putting more forces there wouldn’t be a feint, it would just be stupid.
So when Russia is moving forces out of Izyum, it’s unlikely they’re headed to Lyptsi. Instead, they’ll be defending the area that kos talked about on Tuesday, and which was hinted at by those Russian Telegrams: Volchansk and Kupyansk. Because it’s not so much that Russia is going to defend their areas on the western side of the Donets as it is that they don’t trust Ukrainian forces to stay on the western side of the Donets.
The bridges might be blown, but there are a good 25 kilometers of river along which Ukraine could construct some kind of crossing point. Ukrainian forces that moved fast to take Staryi Saltiv, then Rubiznhe, then Ternova might also carve a path east of the river. And they don’t even have to capture a rail hub like Kupyansk to cause damage. Ukraine could just take out rail lines or bridges leading into these critical supply points.
Russia is moving north not to take the area around Kharkiv, but to keep the forces that recaptured that area for Ukraine from doing the same thing to the east. That Russian Telegram message may believe that the Siverskyi Donets represents a real barrier that will keep Ukrainian forces away from their supply lines. Someone in Russia doesn’t agree.
The weather this next week looks to be rainy in northeastern Ukraine, which is likely to keep rivers high and roads muddy. Russia should be glad.
RUSSIAN STUFF BLOWING UP THEATER
For reference, the turret on a T-72 weighs close to 3 tons.
We’ve seen this column get hit before, but now it has a better musical score and also has an entry in the turret-tossing contest.
For this one, you might want to turn that volume down, but just watch how precisely this homegrown drone drops a bomb right on the button. Also worth noting that this is happening in the “south,” not in the area of Kharkiv.
The Aerorozvidka guys drove out of Kyiv at night on quadbikes to deploy drones and bomb Russian vehicles back during that “40 mile convoy” situation. That’s one of the scenes that has to be put in a movie one day.