On Monday, Ukraine continued to drive deeper into territory on the southern front that Russia has occupied for months. It also broadened the scope of that attack, widening the scale of the counteroffensive even as Russian forces tumbled back toward the first of an extensive set of defensive lines Russian forces have constructed across southern Ukraine.
When the first of these lines was being built many kilometers behind the front lines, disconnected from any current action, they seemed like a joke. They seemed like an admission that Russia would be surrendering big swathes of the Ukrainian countryside, and a retreat behind the same technology that had failed to hold back mechanized forces in World War II, much less the 21st century.
That first part remains true. Russia’s construction of defensive lines well behind the front was a signal of what was clear—their ability to continue offensive operations was limited, if not culminated, and for months ahead Russia would be playing defense. The second part … not so much. Those unsecured dragon’s teeth and earthen bulwarks may have seemed funny flowing out at the Putin-ot Line in Luhansk. But over the winter Russia has kept its trenching machines and concrete factories running. All those lines are a lot less hilarious when they’re connected to a network of mine fields, dragon’s teeth, and anti-vehicle trenches in front of concrete pillboxes and sheltered artillery positions.
Ukraine has made good progress fighting the Russian forces in front of those lines, but it may not be good enough for what happens next.
Early on Monday, it was reported that Ukraine had liberated the town of Novomaiorske. If confirmed, that extends the area of Ukrainian progress south of Velyka Novosilka to a span of 40 km. It’s over 100 square kilometers liberated since the first of June.
There are two very different stories of what’s happening south of Velyka Novosilka on Monday. The official Russian position is that Russian forces retook the town of Makarivka and the rest of the line is rock solid as Ukrainian forces are driven back. The second story is that Russian forces have essentially abandoned Rivnopil and have moved to a defensive line that curves around Staromaiorske and Urozhaine.
There are problems with both these stories. First, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence provided to support the idea of Russia moving back into Makarivka. Second, there doesn’t seem to be any defensive line around Staromaiorske and Urozhaine to occupy. It’s not there even on some of the most recent satellite images, so unless Russian forces got really busy with their spades in the last couple of weeks, this line doesn’t exist.
Which brings us to story No. 3. In that one, Ukrainian forces have already taken Staromaiorske and Urozhaine, and are fighting Russian forces entrenched near Staromlynivka. That might make some kind of sense, because there are actually a set of hills just north of Staromlynivka that have some trenches and other earthworks (though the actual main defensive line is still about 5 km to the south). It would even be kind of exciting … except for the part where the whole mention of Staromlynivka seems to be in a note from a Russian officer who mixed it up with Staromaiorske.
All of this is a very elaborate way of saying I don’t know what’s happening. Despite a pair of reports over 12 hours old that were repeated by some fairly reputable voices, I still have no confirmation that Ukraine has liberated either Marfopil or Rivnopil. And really, once you’re south of Velyka Novosilka, it’s just the same density of homes and streets through all the towns we’ve been talking about. It’s pretty much just one big sprawl from Staromlynivka up to Velyka Novosilka, with a river running right down the middle of the whole thing. It’s not clear where they are in that snarl. But it’s a pretty good bet that they hit Staromlynivka soon.
Also, over on the right, there are reports that Ukrainian forces have pushed Russia out of Oktyabrske, but haven’t actually moved in to liberate the town. As with so much, there is no confirmation.
Along much of the rest of the southern front, there are no changes to report from reliable sources. Instead, here’s a slice of the northern front that hasn’t been looked at since early winter—the area around Svatove.
Svatove was a goal that Ukraine drove for last fall during its Kharkiv counteroffensive. After taking cities to the north like Kupyansk, then following up with the liberation of Lyman to the south, Ukrainian forces spread out over a series of small backroads and connecting highways, liberating all the towns along the Oskil river, then working east. But it was at Svatove and Kreminna that progress was finally halted. In both locations, Ukraine tried to approach the cities as they had Lyman, by knitting together control of surrounding villages, cutting off lines of communications, and applying pressure from multiple directions. Only Svatove and Kreminna lie along a major north-south highway, with that highway often being shielded on the west by terrain that makes it difficult to reach. And Ukraine was coming from the eest.
Ukraine got close. At Kreminna, they temporarily held a series of towns along the highway to the north, were well established from the forests to the south, and actually got forces into the extreme southwest edges of the city. At Svatove, Ukraine reached positions like Popivka and Nezhuryne, just west of that critical highway, and were fighting around Patalakhivka for control of the highway junction that would be a gateway into the city.
Then it got rainy. Then it got muddy. Then it got cold. So Ukraine withdrew to more secure positions over the winter.
Russia made Svatove one of the focal points for its “winter offensive,” but that offensive had little success anywhere. There were reports of attacks on places like Raihorodka and Dzherelne, but they’re not yellow now because of active fighting. It’s more Status: Unknown.
However, two interesting things have happened in Svatove in the last few weeks. First, when Ukraine halted its advance in the fall, the line between Ukrainian control and Russian occupation ran right down the highway between the towns of Novoselivske and Kuzemivka. If you’ve read anything at all about this area in the last six months, it probably looked like this: “Ukraine has attacked Russian forces in Kuzemivka,” or “Russia has attacked Ukrainian forces in Novoselivske.”
Multiple times over the winter, Russia claimed to have captured Novoselivske. At least once, Ukraine pushed Russia to the eastern edge of Kuzemivka. Both forces seemed to come right back to the same stalemate. That ended in May, when Russian sources admitted that Ukraine had pushed Russian forces out of Kuzemivka and Ukraine had control of both towns.
That was an important change—Kuzemivka has long guarded the entrance to that highway, which runs northeast to Nyzhnia Duvanka. By moving up the highway, not only could Ukraine decisively place forces on the other side of that high ground that looks down on the P07 road, it could also gain the approach to Svatove from the north. It’s something Ukraine was actively trying to accomplish before the weather closed in.
The second thing is why this map is here today. It’s here because, on Sunday, there were reports that Ukrainian forces had moved south from Kuzemivka to liberate Kryvoshyivka. This is still unconfirmed, but if true, it shows Ukraine is back on the march toward that highway junction and the approach to Svatove.
Liberating Svatove itself would be a big deal, and it would make it easier for Ukraine to liberate locations to the south like Kreminna next. But even more importantly, it would leave a clear shot toward Starobilsk, 50 km to the east, which is a major hub for both highway and rail traffic in Russian-occupied Ukraine. Take Svatove. Take Starobilsk. And Ukraine has taken a huge chunk out of the viability of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic … or whatever Russia calls their “new province” these days.
The Other Ukrainian Army
If Kryvoshyivka has been liberated, it has happened without any reported assistance from Ukraine’s newly Western-trained and equipped Ukrainian forces. So far, everything that’s been seen of those forces has been in the south. However, what’s been seen in the south seems like far from all of those forces.
As The Economist reported on Sunday, that impression may be true, not just in terms of Ukraine’s forces, but also when it comes to Russia.
A source in Ukraine’s general staff urged caution. “We haven’t committed our main forces, and the Russians haven’t committed their main forces.” Both were involved in a “chess game” to draw out each others’ reserves, he said. Ukraine’s “immediate priority” is reducing Russian superiority in artillery, by targeting its systems with long-range fire. Footage from far behind the frontline suggests that they have already achieved some success.
That the battles going on right now are like the early stages of two boxers entering the ring makes complete sense. Ukraine is throwing some jabs, feeling out Russia’s capability. Circling. That moment when both are fully committed to a strategy and fully deployed in force may still be days or weeks away.
And it may not even come in the area where fighting is now most intense. If the forces in place are really advancing on Svatove … could someone lend them a brigade or two?
The Other War in Ukraine
Just because Wagner Group has withdrawn from Bakhmut and dispatched many of its mercenaries to fight in Sudan, doesn’t mean that Yevgeny Prigozhin has exited the news cycle. Because that other war—the war between Prignozhin and Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu—is still heating up.
As the BBC reported on Sunday, Shoigu’s deputy, Nikolai Pankov, issued a statement declaring that members of private armies like Wagner Group would be required to sign contracts directly with the Ministry of Defense. How Russia can claim that groups like Wagner are not part of their military when they are literally working for their military is the kind of legal nicety that rarely bothers Russians.
If that seems like Shoigu is trying to steal the only valuable thing from Prigozhin’s company, the Wagner CEO agrees. So on Monday, he engaged in his favorite game: red line crossing. That’s because his not-so-subtle response included the statement that “if Shoigu tries to take over Wagner PMC, Shoigu will die.”
However, Prigozhin says he will take orders. Just not from Shoigu. He will only take orders from Russian general Sergey Surovikin.
Ukrainian advisor Anton Gerashchenko has a couple of angles on this escalating squabble. It could be that Prigozhin is playing off Shoigu against Surovikin, hoping that Shoigu has enough enemies in the Kremlin that his move to gain control over Wagner will be thwarted. Or it could be Prigozhin opening negotiations with Shoigu.
Maybe. But “try it and I’ll kill you” seems like a pretty severe starting position.
Please place a pillow on your desk before reading this headline
I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.
Kadyrov took a wrong turn on the way to Bakhmut