Today, Ukraine liberated another town around Kharkiv, this one just to its north. But the main show is down in the Popasna-Severonetsk-Lyman area, where Russia continues to make costly incremental gains.
Lyman is on the wrong side of the Donets River for Ukraine, and we can assume it’ll fall soon. The river will offer a solid defensive line on that approach, so Russia is putting real effort into the two areas that bypass the Donets—the Izyum salient on the top-left of the map above, and the Popasna salient on the bottom right. That would encircle Ukrainian defenders around Severodonetsk and Lysychansk and give Russia the bulk of control over Luhansk Oblast, half of the Donets region Russia hopes to capture.
Sounds scary, right? Twitter is currently full of hyperventilating accounts, screaming that Ukraine had to send everything to the area to hold off the Russian hordes. Others seem on the verge of capitulation. Oh how can Ukraine survive these loses? It’s the opposite on the pro-Russia side, where joy and glee rule the day. Ukraine is on its heels! Victory is in sight!
But things sure do look different when you pull the map back.
Russia’s territorial ambitions have consistently shrunk, to the point that the red circle above would be considered some sort of major achievement.
Of course, no one wants Ukraine to surrender a single inch of territory, but Ukraine could’ve pulled out of Lyman and Severodonetsk months ago, behind that river Russia has lost so much to try and cross. They’re not sticking around for fun, given those cities have suffered the fate of all cities in Russia’s path—they’ve been systematically leveled to the ground. They’re sticking around because it’s bleeding Russia dry. Every inch Russia takes costs them men and equipment they are increasingly incapable of replacing.
Russia’s gains also prove that it still hasn’t learned to focus. We’ve laughed at their inability to focus on a single direction in the Izyum direction, pushing out west, away from the main action. We’re now seeing the same in Popasna. Look at the map above—there are attacks to the north, west, and south of that city, because god forbid Russia focus on closing that loop.
Ukraine’s strategy is simple—bleed Russia while buying time, as hundreds of thousands of Ukraine’s reserves train up and equip with the current influx of western arms. Over the last several days, several Ukrainian military and intelligence officials have referenced late summer as the inflection point at which Ukraine will start liberating territory. And not just post-invasion territory, but the entire Donbas and Crimea. All of it. It’s tough, ambitious talk, but the timeline speaks to Ukraine’s strategy— to hold out another four months as the nation mobilizes.
So losing Severodonets, Lyman, and even Lysychansk alters little. It just means Russia has lost a significant portion of its remaining combat power for what, to then crash on the rocks at Slovyansk and Kramatorsk? What is Russia’s strategic goal? Is it still a “land bridge to Crimea”? Because that team is dead. They haven’t even taken Mariupol. Azovstal still stands.
In fact, Russia’s handling of Mariupol and Azovstal underscores their lack of a broader strategy to inform its actions. It’s an own-goal, destroying the region’s main economic engine.
DNR [Russian proxy Donetsk People’s Republic] authorities are planning to level Azovstal after completing its capture. Azovstal was a major element of Mariupol’s economy before the war because of its unique function as a full-cycle metallurgical complex, the 10,000 jobs associated with production at the plant, the billions of dollars of foreign exchange earnings and taxes it generated [...] the DNR intends to rebuild Mariupol to be a “resort city,” while admitting that 60% of the structures in Mariupol have been destroyed to the point where they cannot be rebuilt. The announced plan to turn Mariupol into a center of tourism and leisure following the complete destruction of a major center of economic activity in Mariupol, is indicative of the damage that Russian troops have inflicted on themselves through the destruction of Mariupol. Russia does not need another resort town on the Black Sea. It does need the kind of hard currency that a plant like Azovstal had generated.
The idea that anyone could turn that toxic waste dump of a facility into a tourist facility is risible, and I’m being literal about Azovstal being a toxic waste dump:
Back to my original point: Always take a look at the big picture, and consider the combatants’ strategic goals. Russia aims to take all of Donbas. Ukraine still holds over 5,000 square miles of that territory. What’s picking up one more city when the task is that daunting, and their logistics lines can’t project more than a few dozens miles into Ukrainian territory?
Ukraine strategic aims are to keep Russia pinned down for the next four months, attriting its forces, as it trains and equips its sizable reserves. How is that coming along? Really well, given Russia’s incredible shrinking ambitions.
So don’t panic when Lyman falls, or if Severodonetsk is surrendered to Russia. Their consequence to the ultimate outcome of this war is negligible.
I’ll close out with this gem, which scoops The Onion at what it does best: