This morning, U.S. Ambassador Bridget Brink is back in Kyiv and has clearly adopted the appropriate Zelenskyy-inspired dress code. The return of U.S. embassy to Kyiv pretty much brings things back to full strength on a diplomatic front with a few exceptions … like Russia.
Meanwhile, Ukraine continues its counteroffensive northwest of Kherson. As of Sunday, Ukrainian forces had moved against Russian positions on at least three points of the line. Some reports indicated that this offensive had rapidly penetrated 9km or more beyond positions as they were understood last week.
The big question is: Is the Kherson counteroffensive the start of a general collapse of Russian forces in the area, as in the Battle of Kyiv, or is it a relatively small counteroffensive whose achievements may be momentarily spectacular, but not enough to shift momentum of the invasion, like the previous counteroffensive at Kharkiv?
Reports now indicate that Ukrainian forces have recaptured Mykolayivka at the northwest end of the Russian-occupied area and have struck against Russian troops in neighboring Ivanivka. Southwest of that position by 30km, Ukrainian forces that crossed the Inhulets River at Davydiv Brid are holding that city and have moved to recapture multiple villages in the area while pushing Russian forces to what appears to be the new front line at Bruskynske. And 30km southwest of that position, Ukrainian forces have moved to recapture the town of Snihurivka, which holds a significant crossroads north of Kherson. Some reports indicate Ukrainian troops have already captured Snihurivka, and have even reported that Russian forces surrendered, but there are almost certainly speculative. Most indications are that conflict in Snihurivka continues.
One thing you can’t see is any of this activity on NASA’s FIRMS instruments. In this case, those blank fire maps don’t seem to be because of weather. They’re blank because Ukraine is not assaulting these towns with a barrage of artillery before moving in. They’re trying to take positions reasonably intact; a huge contrast with the Russian technique of blasting everything to rubble before trying to capture a location.
Like the counteroffensive north of Kharkiv that began a month ago, Ukraine seems to be moving quickly and at multiple points. If the action near Kherson mirrors that around Kharkiv, the establishment of these multiple points of contact will be accompanied by consolidation in some areas, and continued fast movement in others. Ukraine will keep probing for weaknesses, grabbing back what it can, going around Russian strongpoints where possible, and hitting locations that may be unexpected.
However, it’s unclear just how far Ukraine can push this counteroffensive. North of Kharkiv, after two weeks of astounding progress that saw Ukrainian forces pushing Russia back to the border at Ternova and threatening Russian supply lines east of Staryi Saltiv, Ukrainian movements seem to have ended. Ukraine has successfully defended its gains, including holding back repeated Russian assaults on Ternova, but it’s not known if they still hold any territory on the east side of the Siverskyi Donets River, or if they’ve made any further progress in dislodging Russian forces from their remaining locations on the west side of the river.
The whole operation in the Kharkiv area took place under an admirable blanket of operational secrecy. That made achievements like the capture of Staryi Saltiv, the race to Ternova, and putting Ukrainian forces on the east side of the river possible. But it makes it impossible to know why the counteroffensive seems to be over. Did Ukraine suffer enough losses that it had to regroup? Did the MOD determine that some of the troops involved were needed elsewhere? Did Ukraine simply achieve its goals by moving Russian forces away from the city of Kharkiv and forcing the relocation of Russian troops from Izyum. We don’t know.
Is the long-promised counteroffensive near Kherson also meant to achieve limited objectives, or to force Russia to withdraw forces from the conflict in the east? Stay tuned.
It seems less possible than ever to accurately map positions near Kharkiv because reports on activity from either side have become so sparse.
On May 22, Ukrainian forces had apparently pushed Russian troops out of Zarchine and Metalivka north of the Staryi Saltiv bridge and were contesting for the town of Buhaivka. Those reports first appeared in Telegram statements from Russian forces in the area and were later confirmed by a Ukrainian source. However, reports that Ukraine had repaired the bridge at Staryi Slativ or built a pontoon bridge near Rubizhne were never confirmed. How they got a significant force to the east bank remains a mystery. Those east of the river locations are shown here as still in dispute, but with the lack of reported activity, Ukraine may have withdrawn forces from the area.
Meanwhile, Russia appears to still be shelling Ukrainian positions from Vesele and locations NW of Lyptsi. Areas around Kozacha Lopan have been fortified. Russia has launched numerous attempts to retake areas, but Rubizhne appears to be the only town formerly reoccupied by Ukraine that is now in dispute. There were recent reports of a “platoon-sized” skirmish near Starytsya, but that location remains under Russian occupation.
The potential is there for Ukraine to resume a counteroffensive in the area. Compared to the line west of Kherson, the area between Kharkiv and the Russian border is a very compact battlefield, where a small change in resources could make a big difference. However, for now, the area appears relatively stable as both sides are busy in eastern Ukraine.
For about a week, there have been reports that Russian forces have been relocating from bases around Kursk to along the border with Sumy near the Russian town of Sudzha. These actions have come as Russian-controlled media outlets have repeated statements that Russia still intends to return to Kyiv and to capture all of Ukraine.
Is this an absolute feint, in the style of constantly having Belarus shift soldiers around while never bringing one across the border? It seems likely. For Russia to open up another area of conflict around Sumy doesn’t make any sense for them strategically other than as an effort to draw Ukrainian forces away from significant areas. And it could be as simple as “they keep distracting us with Kharkiv and Kherson, now we’re going to distract them!”
It’s likely that Ukraine will not shift significant forces to meet this threat unless they have intelligence indicating that there’s genuine action. There are territorial defense forces in the region, so Russia isn’t going to just drive down the highway to Sumy without a confrontation.
Izyum is standing in here not just for the Izyum salient, but the whole of eastern Ukraine. And it’s this area that the world is focused on for the moment.
Ukrainian forces appear to have captured the town of Velyka Komyshuvakha west of Izyum. This could be the start of turning what had been a hit-and-run counteroffensive in the area into the same sort of push seen first at Kharkiv and now at Kherson. Izyum was once home to 27 Russian Battalion Tactical Groups, but at this point well over half of those BTGs are absent. Some were sent north when it seemed Ukraine might threaten supply lines. Some have joined in the push at Severodonetsk. Some have simply been forced to leave and regroup after those Ukrainian attacks beat the holy hell out of them.
Russia is still moving out of Izyum, managing to capture small areas to both the south and east as they push toward joining up with forces at Lyman. But if nothing else, Ukrainian attacks may make them turn around and look west.
However, the big action remains around Severodonetsk. Russian forces have reportedly occupied between a third and half of the town. Ukrainian troops put out a series of videos showing them moving peacefully through parts of the town to counter Russian propaganda that Severodonetsk had already fallen. However, there is no doubt that the pressure cooker is at a critical point. Russia has control of suburban areas on all sides and the concertation of forces is high.
Writing in the Ukrainian edition of Forbes, war reporter Ilya Ponomarenko paints the moment in terms that can only be described as dire ((translated using Google translate):
After weeks without progress, Russia has made important progress and brought Ukraine to the brink of a major catastrophe
The actions of Ukrainian troops forced the Russians to engage in extremely bloody and grueling urban battles in Severodonetsk. The tactical success of the Russians near Popasnaya in late May is really worrying. Russia managed to strengthen its marine units, as well as the 57th Motorized Rifle Brigade and the Wagnerians, break through the defenses of the Ukrainians and pass Popasna.
While Ukraine has since pushed back on some of the advances Russia made out of Popasna, Ponomarenko calls the speed of Russian movements in the area “ a very dangerous development.” Russia, he reports, enjoys a “ superiority in manpower, heavy weapons, and air support” that is making the situation untenable for Ukraine.
According to Ponomarenko, the possibility that as many as 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers could be “trapped, cut off from unoccupied Ukraine, and possibly exhausted and destroyed” is very real.
If so, it would be a genuine disaster, not just in terms of forces lost, but in the victory, it would hand to Putin and the unmistakable defeat it would give Ukraine. It would demonstrate that, no matter how poor their equipment has been, no matter how badly they have juggled logistics or command, and no matter how many times rumors spread that Russian forces were in despair, Russia can still execute its One Tactic: blow it up with artillery, then walk over it.
As reports continue to come in of Russia capturing more and more of Severodonetsk, perhaps the most frightening sign is how few locations in the city are currently being hit by artillery as indicated by NASA’s FIRMS data. In other areas, that kind of reduction in the number of strikes signaled Russia turning off the guns and rolling in the tanks. At this hour (12 ET on Tuesday), Russian forces are reportedly moving through the town block by block.
On the other hand, there’s something interesting in the FIRMS data — a cluster of what looks to be very recent hits near Borovenky about 9km to the north. It doesn’t make sense for Russia to be firing into this location … so who is? Of course, this whole area is in easy artillery range for guns across the river at Lysychansk.
There are multiple reports on Tuesday that signal Ukraine may be about to depart Severodonesk—a territorial loss that clearly carries a huge significance for both sides. However, it’s not worth losing a major portion of the Ukrainian army. Losing Severodonesk would be bad. Losing the defenders of Severodonesk would be a real disaster.
But in any case, this is not looking to be a good day on the extreme right of the Ukraine map.
How many engineering units does Russia have left at this point?