The battle of Severodonetsk continues; and as predicted the Russians continue to feed people and material into the battles around Luhansk Oblast (region). Since the last article, international media spent the week furiously painting a picture of an inexorable Russian advance that will crush Ukrainian resistance. So it is probably a good time to look at the situation and provide some perspective. The fight around Severodonetsk is very important, not because the city has great tactical value but rather because of its political value. It is one of the two remaining cities in Luhansk that is still held by Ukraine. If the Russians want to legitimately claim victory in Luhansk, they need to take Severodonetsk.
If an army wants to capture a city it has two broad options, it can either surround and starve it; or it can assault it. The Russians have tried and continue to try, surrounding Severodonetsk by advancing from Izyum and Lyman in the north and from Poposna in the south. So far none of these advances has made significant progress, however the Russians are often reported making ground. Although, the reality is that their gains are often small, kilometres at max but more often hundreds of metres. The Russians are throwing everything they have at progressing this battle and are still not making significant progress.
Severodonetsk itself is a strong defensive position. Firstly, it is an urban area full of buildings to fortify, sewers to move or hide in and all the other complexities that make cities difficult to fight in. It even has a Cold War era fortified and bomb proofed factory complex! Add this to being over looked by its sister city Lsysyschansk, from which Ukrainian artillery observers can survey Severodonetsk and then direct fire from their artillery, tucked safely away in low ground behind their positions. It is a tough place to attack. Even the river that separates Severodonetsk’s defenders from their comrades in Lysyschansk is a mixed blessing for the Russian attackers because it makes any kind of envelopment very difficult. Essentially, if you wanted to fight a defensive battle and destroy as many Russian soldiers and tanks as possible Severodontesk is a great place to choose. And if the Russians want to attack it ‘head on’, that’s even better if your objective is attrition.
The key issue with Severodonetsk is not the current battle but the next battle. The next battle will be either tactical or strategic. When and if, the Russians take Severodontesk my assessment of their most dangerous next move is to ‘dig in’ along the Severskyi-Donets River. This river is a formidable defensive boundary and would secure the vast majority of Luhansk. By doing this the Russians could request a ceasefire while defending the area that they have already taken. This would give them time to subdue the areas captured and annex them into Russia. After, being annexed these parts of Ukraine would become ‘Russian’ and be covered by their nuclear deterrent, changing the strategic dynamic. The Russians could use the ceasefire to rest, recuperate and undermine NATO unity. By playing the ‘long game’ the Russians can prepare for the next campaign and over a period of years plan to absorb more of Ukraine.
So in recent days it is a relief to see the Russians doing the opposite and instead building strength around Izyum and trying to push south along the M103 highway towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk and also continuing to push north-west from Poposna towards Bahkmut a town on the same highway. This activity indicates the Russians are aiming to stay in the war until they control both Donetsk and Luhansk. If the Russians remain committed to taking Donetsk, then their tactical options are constrained. In simple terms it commits them to a series of tough battles, as follows:
- Severodonetsk must be taken.
- Lysyschansk must either be taken or bypassed.
- Sloviansk and Kramatorsk must be taken.
Attacking Sloviansk and Kramatorsk will be very difficult. The two cities are large with a population between them of around 260,000 people, and both sit on high ground. Further, we know that the Ukrainians have been ‘digging in’ extensive defensive positions around them. So after taking Severodonetsk, the Russians will have to slowly fight their way from their current positions across distances of approximately 25km on the axis of advance from Izyum or 30km from Poposna or 60km from Lysyschansk. If we look at their current rate of advance it will take months. Then they will have to fight well ‘dug-in’ and prepared defenders, tough proposition.
However, there is another factor that needs to be considered called ‘tension’. Tacticians understand that battle involves both ‘tempo’ and ‘tension’. At the moment the ‘tempo’ of the battle is slow as pressure builds every day around Severodontesk. The Ukrainians keep fighting and the Russians continue to build up their forces. This situation can be described as ‘tension’. The frontline is like a stick being slowly bent. Eventually, the stick will break and the ‘tension’ will be released. It could be that the Russians fail and the Ukrainians are able to make a sudden advance or it could be the other way round and the Ukrainians suddenly retreat, either way the ‘tempo’ would change and we could see sudden advances. It is important that we do not read too much into any initial release of ‘tension’. It is likely that any sudden Russian advance will stop dead at Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. Likewise the Severskyi-Donets River makes significant Ukrainian advances unlikely.
However, it creates uncertainty so the media may make a range of unfounded assessments and it is important that we understand that in the next days or weeks there could be sudden unexpected activity. Good generals won’t want the uncertainty created by this situation and will try to avoid it. Unfortunately, not many generals are skilled, or lucky enough to manage this factor in battle. It is important that observers and political decision-makers are aware and do not over react because of a sudden and unexpected Russian advance.
In the north, near Kharkov the tactical battle remains largely static. In the south the Ukrainian advance is slowing down and Russian forces are reported to be ‘digging in’ to defend Kherson. The western Black Sea is also an area to watch as Russia and Ukraine struggle to assert their control over the area. Russia installing air defence missiles on the island to replace the capability lost when the Moskva was sunk. Ukraine fighting to stop them and sinking Russian warships. This battle could be an indicator of future Ukrainian activity because a sensible pre-requisite for an advance on the coast is driving the Russian Navy away from the area. So the recent sinking of a vessel re-supplying Snake Island’s garrison is a demonstration of the Harpoon missile’s capability that may indicate larger Ukrainian plans.
Strategically, I was worried last article by the actions of some NATO members that appeared to be looking to provide Putin with an easy way out of the war. Fortunately, late last week NATO leaders made a strong commitment to guaranteeing their support for Ukraine. Further, the United States pledged nearly a billion dollars’ worth of equipment to be shipped directly from their reserves to Ukraine. This support reinforces NATO’s commitment to upholding the integrity of Ukraine’s borders and independence. Another important point is that NATO’s language is thoughtful and well-considered, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg clearly stating that “We must prepare for the fact that it could take years. We must not let up in supporting Ukraine” effectively committing NATO to a long strategic campaign. In fact a battle fought across the world, as we all manage inflation and increases in the cost of living generated by this war and in the countries that depend on Ukrainian grain to feed their people. However, a battle worth fighting because the price of appeasement is more war and instability.
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the United Kingdom’s highest ranking military officer commented recently that strategically Russia has already lost the war, increasing its own isolation, unifying Europe and sacrificing a quarter of its military power to make minimal territorial gains. In my opinion this is a sound assessment of the situation and Ukraine’s current strategic goal is to ‘hold on’ and attrit the Russians. The more Russia is weakened on the battlefield the more economic sanctions will bite. Replacing military equipment is expensive and will get harder and harder for Russia. Slowly Ukraine’s resources will increase while Russia’s decrease, it will take time but is inevitable. It is important that the countries supporting Ukraine are aware that this campaign will take time and are committed for the long-term.
In summary, the Battle of Severodonetsk is a terrible but strategically significant battle. It is the first step in a campaign that will see similar battles fought in another three cities, as the Russians advance west and grind their people and equipment away against defended positions. Strategically, Russia has lost and sensible decision-making would be to minimise their losses and negotiate as settlement. Unfortunately, this does not look likely creating a terrible situation in which many young people will die fighting for their different causes and lots of Ukrainian civilians will be killed, crippled and driven from their homes. The Ukrainians are suffering to defend their country. However, we must spare a thought for the young Russians being fed into the meatgrinder. Young men killed, burnt and maimed simply to assuage the ego of an elderly dictator.
Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.