The big story today is that something not small happened over the last week. Since Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine moved to what is being called the Battle of the Donbas, most actions seem to have taken place at a rate that roughly approximates the growth of fingernails. Here and there Russian forces have managed to advance, but far more often attempts to dislodge Ukrainian forces from towns and villages have been repulsed.
Sadly, because the area of the battle is close to the Russian border, Russia is able to defend the airspace with both planes and anti-aircraft systems working from across the border. That makes it difficult for Ukrainian aircraft to operate in the area and give Ukraine the kind of air support that would allow them to make large-scale counter attacks. So Russia keeps shelling, then tries to move forward. Then it shells some more. Russian losses are terrible. Ukrainian losses are also painfully high. But Ukraine has multiple prepared positions against just this kind of attack, and Russia has nothing like the ratio of forces necessary to overwhelm Ukrainian positions.
So, in most of eastern Ukraine, the fields are getting heavily fertilized with blood, and the muddy roads are getting heavily strewn with wreckage, but not much else is happening that looks like progress for either side.
Which only serves to make what’s happening north of Kharkiv more exciting.
Over the last week, Ukraine has mounted a steady counteroffensive directed at troops north of Kharkiv and west of the Siverskyi Donets River. Starting with Russian forces right on the doorstep of the battered city, Ukraine has pushed back through the suburbs, then into outlying towns and villages along multiple roadways. On the west, they’ve pressed in to take the town of Udy, less than 5 miles from the Russian border.
In what may be one of the most impressive moves of the second phase of the war, Ukrainian forces bypassed Russian forces in multiple villages, took a series of small roads, and entered the town of Staryi Saltiv on Sunday—a move so unexpected that when I first got reports of Ukrainian forces in the town, I disregarded them. After all, there were several other areas with Russian occupation “in the way.”
But the Ukrainian move into Staryi Saltiv was real, and though fighting in the town continues, it seems that Russian forces that were south of that location, but on the west bank of the Donets, have gone missing. In other words, they’ve withdrawn north or south before they could be cut off and chopped up in an isolated position. As a result, a whole chain of villages appears to have come back into Ukrainian-controlled territory without the need for a step-by-step fight.
Reports have indicated that the troops assigned to this area by Russia just are not very good, or that some of them are forced conscripts put in place by the Luhansk “republic.” Whatever the case, Ukraine has been able to shift them roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) since the counterattack out of Kharkiv began.
However, it’s not clear that this will continue. Russian forces may be falling back in chaos, with Ukrainian forces chasing them to the border. On the other hand, they may be falling back behind lines being held by more stalwart troops, where they can get their act together and be plugged back into the line.
For Russia, the threat is not so much that Ukrainian forces will march to the border and just keep going. The threat is right there in Staryi Saltiv. That’s because this town is the site of a highly strategic bridge crossing. [Correction: The Ukrainian army blew up that bridge back on Mar 5 during the early stages of the invasion]. If they could push 15 miles north from there, they could reach Vovchans'k, a critically important road and rail junction. All the men and material coming in from Belgorod (20 miles northwest) passes through this point. As it stands, occupying Staryi Saltiv puts Ukrainian forces within artillery range of Russia’s major entry point.
These actions seem improbable. Even laughable. But then, so did the possibility of Ukraine suddenly showing up in Staryi Saltiv in the first place. Right now, pro-Ukraine Twitter is full of tweets like this one:
Meanwhile, pro-Russian Twitter is full of claims that the territory taken by Ukraine had “no military value,” that Russia only fell back to more important positions, and that by doing so it freed up forces to be used elsewhere.
Right now, the fog of war over what’s happening at Staryi Saltiv is a real pea-souper. But as we go through today, maybe it will be possible to tell what’s happening. If Ukraine continues to advance along those other roads moving north of Kharkiv, it may signal a general Russian withdrawal from the area west of the Donets. If Ukraine reports that it has put forces on the east side of that bridge, it will be a genuinely big deal—one that’s likely to demand Russia turn some force around from other efforts to secure its rear.
One thing to watch for soon: Look for what happens in the town of Shestakove and village of Fredirivka north of Kharkiv. These towns are sitting on a much better roadway between Kharkiv and Staryi Saltiv. If Ukraine really intends to move a lot of force in that direction, expect these towns to become the focus of some attention Real Soon Now.
Listen to Markos and Kerry Eleveld talk Ukraine and speak with Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler on how hitting back at Republicans helps win elections on Daily Kos’ The Brief podcast
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