Over the weekend, Mark wrote about Ukraine’s more aggressive stance in the Kherson region and the panic it seems to be creating with advancing Russian troops. Last week, I speculated that a major Ukrainian counteroffensive might indeed come southeast away from Kherson, which (along with blowing some strategic bridges) would cut off Russian forces from supply lines everywhere between Kherson and Melitopol (and beyond). Speculation aside, Ukraine will eventually advance to where Russia’s lines are weakest. Limited counterattacks will test these gaps, while HIMARS, Tochka-U ballistic missiles, and long-range Excalibur guided artillery rounds systematically destroy supply depots, rail lines, command and control centers, air defenses, and troop barracks.
With US intelligence estimates that Russia has committed 85% of its ground forces to the war, securing their valuable land bridge will be difficult. Given the poor menu of options, it may be time for them to abandon the Izyum approach. Remember Izjum?
Here’s Izyum’s headline yesterday, July 24:
Here is the map from two months ago on May 24:
@War_Mapper played with some of the red-pink shading, so ignore it. Look at the cities that have actually changed hands. The most obvious difference is that Russia grabbed everything north of the Siversk Donets river. It has little to do with the Izyum highlight, although if this whole area fills up to the east, maybe it’s time to stop calling it ‘excellent’.
If you remember, the Russian troops in Izium were supposed to lead Russia’s large defensive encirclement of the Ukrainian Donbass. Remember this card?
I did this on May 13th, scoffing at the idea that they could withstand any such attack for hundreds of kilometers with Ukraine crushing their flanks. In the end, Russia also realized this, unable to break more than a few tens of kilometers. It didn’t help that instead of going south, Russia did the Russian thing and, well, did this:
Suffering from military ADD, Russia was unable to unify or concentrate its forces on a single line of attack, literally spreading out in four separate directions. This move westward seemed to shock US intelligence:
I couldn’t help myself when it came out. This might still be one of the dumbest claims I’ve seen in the entire war. Eventually, Russia managed to move 32 kilometers to Velyka Komyshuvakha (population 882) before running out. 200 kilometers from Dnipro (1 million inhabitants). God, that was stupid. Really indeed stupid.
Their southern approach wasn’t much better, and it wasn’t long before Russia decided that a broad encirclement of the entire Donbass wasn’t going to happen. Instead, they decided to target the twin fortress cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. This has succeeded, as has their attempt to advance towards the Dnieper.
It took Russia almost three months to finally capture Dovhenk’e, located only 27 kilometers from Izyum. Indeed, this village is one of the few differences (south of the river) between the May 24 and July 24 maps above. This village, with a pre-war population of 800, cost the Russians untold lives and equipment, and almost single-handedly stopped the Russian advance on Izia. Dovehenk’e was and remains one of my pet obsessions and probably my favorite story of the entire war. I’d love to write a whole book about this little patch of dirt someday.
It took Russia months and the combined might of the Russian armies to capture some country houses in Dovhenke, so please explain to me how they are supposed to threaten Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, which have a population of about 250,000?
Shamefully for Russia, the Izyum approach was once the largest concentration of Russian combat forces in all of Ukraine. Here is the approximate breakdown on April 30 at Henry Schlottman on Twitter:
Izyum’s approach was Russian the main approach. And little Dovhenk’e (and lot of Ukrainian artillery falling from this exposed western flank) crushed them. Eventually, many of these forces were moved to the Severodonetsk-Popasna-Lisikansk offensive, but even then the Izia region remained the second largest concentration of Russian forces in the country, and likely still is today.
So what now? This means that many Russians sit on the open approach and do nothing while artillery fire continues to rain down on their positions. Ukrainian forces are constantly harassing Russian forces in the forest west of Izyum.
Ukraine does not need HIMARS to reach these exposed positions. Conventional artillery and even anti-tank missiles do this.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is making gains to the south, and it’s clear that something big is going to happen in a few weeks. Russia is the thinnest on this southern front. The logic would be that Russia should admit that their Slovyansk-Kramatorsk dream is dead and give up all that approach to strengthen the south. Russia can claim it’s a “goodwill gesture” and the pro-Russian side can get away with pretending it was all a “fake”, just like Kyiv. But that land bridge to Crimea will not protect itself.
Therefore, it was interesting to see that on Sunday morning Ukrainian sources in Telegram claimed that the Russian troops looted the cities of Yaremivka and Studenok, packed everything and left.
Studenok is located on the southern bank of the Siversky Donets River, while Yaremivka is located on the northern side. The two villages are connected by a pontoon bridge supporting the Russian attack on Bohorodychne, another contender for “hero town” status. There is a supply railhead in Yaremivka. It is why a pontoon bridge was placed there. So is Russia really abandoning these positions? That would be incredible!
Look below this red square at Bohorodichne, another Ukrainian hero town, now playing the same role that Dovhenk’e played during those long months. “The occupiers tried to establish control over the Bohorodichne settlement by attacking them,” the Ukrainian General Staff reported on Sunday, practically rolling its eyes. “And again, traditionally, without any success.”
Given that Bohorodychne is still actively contested, it is unlikely that the Russians abandoned the two towns helping to secure this attack. Perhaps a rotating unit decided to bring home some looted souvenirs. It’s less likely that a unit left by pillaging their way out of town. But Russia is not backing down from here yet.
Ukraine’s advance on Kherson could yet make Russia rethink its approach to Izyum. In fact, it seems inevitable. But that hasn’t happened yet.
How about this Russian craftsmanship?
Maybe that’s why the following things happen:
Holy shit, look at all that fire between Kherson and Melitpol! Def Mon tries to filter out traditional agricultural burns (“false positives”), but it is unfathomable that these populations are so many military targets in no man’s land. It is all agricultural steppe.
It’s nice to see the Donbass front so (relatively) quiet. Ukrainians defending this line deserve some respite.