Four days ago, Ukraine announced a counteroffensive. Around Kharkiv, that announcement seemed unnecessary, as it was already clear Ukrainian troops were on the move, retaking villages and towns, pushing back Russian forces, directing artillery fire at the next Russian position, and advancing. This has been the kind of tactic both Ukraine and Russia have used throughout the war.
In the Kharkiv area, everything seemed to be “in sync” when it comes to matching this tactic. There were Telegram and Twitter reports of attacks on Russian garrisons at various towns; satellite data that showed those areas being knocked around by artillery fire; images whose geolocations placed them near these towns; and finally announcements of villages and towns liberated by Ukrainian forces. Predicting the names that were likely to appear on the list of recaptured locations didn’t exactly take a genius.
Hours after this data was available from NASA satellites, Ukraine reported the recapture of villages and towns that could be named just by moving a finger from one red patch to the next.
So what to make of this image?
The masses of activity here indicate a heavy use of artillery in two areas. The one directly west of Staryi Saltiv is in an area just north of the town of Ukrainka, which was part of that list of recaptured locations on Friday. A close look reveals this fire seems to be centered at a fork in the road just outside the town, which may be the fallback position of Russian forces. Of course, this could also be Russian forces further north firing down on Ukrainian positions in an attempt to slow their advance. NASA’s fire detection satellites, unfortunately, don’t color code by the source of the fire.
But the more interesting blob of activity is that one about six miles north of Staryi Saltiv. All of that seems to be going on very, very close to the bridge that crosses the Siverskyi Donets River just east of the town of Rubizhne. The heavy activity there offers several tantalizing possibilities.
Ukraine may have raced up the west bank of the river, recapturing Verkhnii Saltiv and closing on the bridge. It could be directing distant fire from positions in Staryi Saltiv. Even more difficult to deduce than location is motive. These blasts are right around the bridge. Right around the bridge.
It’s almost certain this is Ukrainian fire directed into Russian positions. But is Ukraine trying to drive Russia back so they can capture the bridge intact? Are they trying to damage the bridge and isolate forces on the west side of the river? Again, NASA doesn’t really help with this. But something big is happening both west and north of Staryi Saltiv, and it may be some time before we really understand what that is.
Even so, if the data in the Kharkiv area offers a tantalizing hint that Ukraine is moving more quickly than either side has done since this invasion began, what’s happening around Izyum can best be described by this technical term: WTF?
Soon after the invasion began, Russian ran a salient out of their controlled area extending west to the main road running south out of Kharkiv, then turning south to reach the town of Izyum. The purpose of the Russian advance was clearly an attempt to cut off Ukrainian forces in the east, isolate them, and allow Russia to attack those heavily fortified towns along the Donbas border from all sides. Izyum became the stopper for the Russian advance over the next few weeks with Russian forces on the north side, and Ukrainian forces on the south side of a bend in that yes-it’s-everywhere Siverskyi Donets River. It was still that way at the end of March, until Russian forces managed to ford the river at a spot south of the city, reportedly with the help of a pro-Russian local official.
Once Ukrainian forces in the city had been defeated, Izyum became the center of Russia’s actions in the east. With the end of the Battle of Kyiv, kos reported on Izyum’s importance to the next act of the war, the difficulty of maintaining long supply lines to support such an extended salient, and Ukraine’s efforts to snap Russia’s connection to Izyum.
But over time, Russia extended and fortified its position at Izyum. It opened up additional routes to the city by capturing bridges to the east, conducted probing attacks to push back Ukrainian forces from surrounding towns, and began basing a larger and larger force near the captured city.
When analyst Henry Schlottman put together his map of troop density in eastern Ukraine earlier this week, it was clear that nowhere had more forces per kilometer than Izyum. Russia intends Izyum to be the center for its push to the south, and it has built up a very large force that Schlottman believes to be 22 Battalion Tactical Groups. That’s dozens of tanks, hundreds of transports, and over 15,000 men. It’s not too much to suggest that Izyum has become the heart of Russia’s effort to secure the Donbas.
For the last three days, there has been word that a counteroffensive against the Russian position at Izyum was underway. However, it’s been extremely difficult to understand what form that counteroffensive might take. After all, Izyum seemed to offer few opportunities for the kind of capture, advance, capture strategy that the war has seen so far, not when there are all those forces gathered.
Since that announcement, there has been no list of villages reported recaptured. None of the kind of semi-daily updates that have come from activity in other areas. However, there have been images like this one, whose geolocation put them seriously close to Izyum itself.
And then, there is … this other thing. That FIRMS data. When looking at the data around Kharkiv, NASA’s fire-detecting satellites told such a clear story. You can read it day by day as Ukrainian forces move out into the immediate suburbs, push Russia back, drive to Staryi Saltiv, capture villages along the main road, and now turn to the north.
But what kind of story is Izyum telling?
This image shows NASA FIRMS data for the Izyum area on May 3, the day that counteroffensive was first mentioned. There are several small areas of artillery activity — though its worth pointing out that the area of red on the lower right of this image, which I regularly reported over the last week as “Russian forces firing into Ukrainian positions” turns out to be … a fire. Like a forest fire. Which shows again that any source of data, in isolation, leaves a lot of potential for mistakes. Keep that in mind.
Two days later, and the area west of Izyum has exploded. To steal a title from Celeste Ng, there are indeed Little Fires Everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. A lot of these hot spots aren’t near a town or village, though others area. Now, let’s look ahead 24 hours.
Just as many hot spots as Thursday, but many of them in different locations. This is nothing like what we’ve seen elsewhere.
There are a couple of extremely different explanations for what these maps are showing.
One: Ukraine could be using a tactic utterly different than anything we’ve seen before in this war. The area where most of this activity is shown is sparsely populated, heavily forested, and crisscrossed by hundreds of farming roads, logging roads, and roads that are little better than goat paths. Ukraine could be using these roads to bypass fortified Russian positions, ignore occupied villages, and just strike directly at Russian units in positions that Russia thought were safely well behind the lines.
Two: This is a sparsely populated, heavily forested area and it could be burning.
The best answer is probably a combination of the above. Based on photographs and scattered reports, it’s clear Ukraine has been trying to take the fight to Russia in the Izyum area. and all those roads in a near-empty area that practically makes a path to the outskirts of the city would be hard to resist as a place to operate under cover and with a lot of freedom of movement. Seriously, take a look.
In Robin Hood terms, this is a Sherwood forest that comes right to the edge of Nottingham. There’s access, there’s cover, there’s everything you might want if you wanted to mount a mobile, fast moving assault on Russian positions without trying to lock down villages or expressly hold territory.
There are almost certainly fires in the woods west of Izyum. But it seems extremely likely that no one is fighting those fires, because they’re too busy with the fire fight.
Consider this the bad news sector of the war today. In eastern Ukraine, Russia has taken several suburbs around Severodonetsk that had been heavily fought over until today. Reports also indicate that Russian forces have captured more (though not all) of neighboring Rubzihne and some forces have entered Severodonetsk itself.
And, sadly, Popasna seems to have finally fallen. They will polka no more. For now.
Where Ukrainian forces withdrawing from Popasna to the west and north set up next isn’t clear. The loss of the town, with its many trenches and well-constructed fortifications prepared over the last eight years, is a bit loss. Whether Russia is capable of exploiting that loss is another question.
More than any other area, this section of the map is due for some updates, as the focus in the last few days has been on Kharkiv and Izyum.
Mark Sumner ·
Folks, the dance may be over.
Reports are rolling in this morning that Ukrainian forces have withdrawn from their fortifications are Popasna. It was clear on Thursday that Ukrainian forces in the eastern and southern of the town had been either pushed out or destroyed. On Friday night, Ukrainian forces reportedly abandoned their remaining positions, first in the west, then in the north, allowing Russian forces to move into Popasna on Saturday.
This may be taking place in that wooded area just outside Izyum. There’s a good likelihood that this was exactly the area where Russia was parking those 22 BTGs.
An updated map of the Kharkiv area that shows some of the known changes over the last 48 hours.
I’ve made some changes to the appearance of the map here to help distinguish what’s been happening. Locations that are newly captured or recaptured are now shown in a lighter shade and with a different symbol. Positions that Ukraine has held longer than two days are shown without a symbol to help separate them from the newly captured areas — something similar is being done on the Russian side in areas where Russia is advancing.
The yellow markers with a jagged explosion symbol designate areas known to be in dispute. Also added today are yellow areas, like the one just north of Staryi Saltiv, where it’s clear that something has happened in terms of control, but exactly what’s going on is unclear.
Mark Sumner ·
Oh, poor Popasna. It literally gave everything.
Please note that the news of Popasna’s capture is still unconfirmed by any official Ukrainian source. However, it appears Russia is now directing fire to the west of the town itself, rather than into the areas it had been hitting until today.
Sometimes, when you’re so intent on looking at the names of villages on the front line, it’s easy to miss the fact that something miles away might have changed hands. That happened with Staryi Saltiv, where I shrugged over initial accounts of Ukraine entering the town because “there were other towns that would have to change hands first.”
That may have happened again at Lyptsi. Overnight, there were a handful of claims that Ukrainian forces had walked into town with no opposition. But since this was north of at least two other locations “known” to be under Russian occupation, I promptly put it on the “yeah, right” shelf.
Only there are now indications that Lyptsi and several other locations in the region may have been abandoned by the Russians. Maybe not quite so voluntarily as earlier reports made it seem.
What’s the best indication that the whole area of Russian control around Kharkiv may be in headlong retreat? Just look at how pro-Russian sources are describing the area now.
See, Kyiv was just a distraction from Kharkiv, and Kharkiv is just a distraction from Izyum. Give it a couple of days. Maybe we’ll find out what Izyum is a distraction from.
In the meantime, I may need to make some big updates to my map.
This could certainly be the source of some of that smoke in those satellite images.