After two days of futility, Russia finally picked up some new ground today.
Lyman’s fate is sealed, on the wrong side of the Donets. Hopefully civilians have fully evacuated. Russia hasn’t been kind to any in captured territory. The entire city is on fire, with firefighters unable to work amidst the relentless artillery barrage.
Russia pushed south of the Popasna salient with some success. There’s a chunk of land that Ukraine seems to have ceded, as they set up defensive lines around Bakhmut, west of Popasna. Russia seemingly wants to cut off highway (and supply) access to Lysychansk and the besieged Severodonetsk before sending Popasna-based troops up north.
Bakhmut had a pre-war population of around 73,000, so it gives Ukraine a more urban-ish setting to mount a defense. Just as importantly, Bakhmut is around 32 kilometers (~20 miles) from Popasna—toward the tail end of Russia’s logistical capabilities. Ukrainian artillery can set up behind Bakhmut and shred the approaches, much as it has done to great effect around the Russian-held Izyum salient (top-left in the map above).
Interestingly, Russia has sent its Donbas separatist proxy forces up to Kharkiv, playing defense in the face of Ukraine’s efforts to liberate territory around the city all the way to the Russian border. If nothing else, the Ukrainian counter-offensive in this region has relieved some of the pressure on Ukrainian defenders in the Donbas.
Russia’s continued problem is that it’s still playing small-ball. It is losing a frightening amount of troops and equipment to slice off strategically irrelevant slivers of land here and there. Even if Russia were to take Lyman (likely), Severodonetsk (possible), and Lysychansk (doubtful), it would pick up only 5-10% of the Donbas territory still held by Ukraine. Afterward, they’d crash upon the walls of Ukrainian strongholds at Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, which are far beyond Russia’s current capabilities to capture.
Some observers are starting to speculate Russia might be content to stop at Lyman, Severodonetsk, and maybe Lysychansk, declare mission accomplished, and claim their goal all along was merely a land bridge in Ukraine’s southeast to Crimea. Then, Russia could play to some nations’ (and the NY Times’ editorial board) desperation to end the war by letting Vladimir Putin “save face” with all that newly conquered Ukrainian territory. To that end, Russian forces have been digging defensive positions in captured territory, looking to both defend against expected Ukrainian counter-offensives, while also solidifying claims to those lands during future negotiations. Not that Ukraine is playing ball, nor should it.
Still, the chorus for Ukraine to once again surrender territory to an insatiable Russia is growing. I wonder if pro-Russia, anti-American imperialist Tankies feel dirty being on the same page as Henry Kissinger, the most imperialists of American imperialists, demanding Ukraine surrender land “for peace.”
Among newly pledged foreign military aid, Denmark will be delivering Harpoon anti-ship missiles decommissioned in 2003. That land-launcher is key, as other allied countries only have ship- or air-launched versions. With a range of 75 miles, these Harpoon won’t be able to reach the Russian naval base at Sebastopol, at the bottom tip of Crimea 190 miles from Odesa. But Russian ships will be unable to sail to the Ukrainian coast to launch its cruise missiles without significant risk. Just the presence of Harpoons may single-handedly push the Russian navy out of the war.
Busting Russia’s naval blockade of Ukraine’s export ports is another matter, however. Any cargo and military ships running the gauntlet would have to contend with long-range Russian anti-ship missiles, mines, and submarines. The only thing that might bust the blockade would be a NATO naval escort, daring Russia to take a bite out of their (much) stronger enemy. Britain has expressed interest at Lithuania’s plan to engage in such a risky venture, but the U.S. is cool to the idea, and war ships can’t cross the Bosporus Strait anyway, as Turkey invoked the Montreux Convention to close Black Sea military access at Ukraine request, if you remember. It’s a handy excuse, as there are likely few countries willing to risk a wider war. And it would be difficult for civilian craft to participate given the dangers from torpedoes, missiles and mines.