By RFE RL
By Mike Eckel
(RFE/RL) — The last bridges over the Siverskiy Donets River have been blown at Syevyerodonetsk, cutting off the Donbas city from the right bank and trapping hundreds of Ukrainian civilians and troops.
Russia is on the verge of taking the city, and between 100-200 Ukrainian soldiers are dying every day. In the southern Kherson region, Ukraine has made only incremental progress in a counteroffensive against Russian positions. Russian troops have reportedly begun moving toward the northeastern city of Kharkiv again.
Powered by withering Russian artillery and rocket fire, and a marked change in Russian tactics and command, the tide of war is turning against Ukraine — and Kyiv says the only way to turn it back is to get more Western weapons faster.
Is Ukraine losing the war? It’s not that simple.
“If by ‘losing’ you mean Ukraine doesn’t look like it can regain its territory, and drive Russia out of its own territory, then yes, that’s a fair assessment; they are losing,” said Scott Boston, a former U.S. Army colonel and artillery officer who has studied the Ukraine war closely.
Other experts also say it depends on how you define “lose.”
“It may look pessimistic, but in reality, if you look at the map, you look at the Donbas, you can’t find a lot of changes, in spite of the huge concentration of Russian forces,” said Mykhaylo Samus, the deputy director of the Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies in Kyiv. “Ukrainian forces are playing very effective defense.”
“On the contrary, what we can say is Russia has failed,” Samus said. “Basically, Russia in strategic thinking has lost the war already, because they started with high expectations on February 24. They planned to get Kyiv in [a] couple days, it was a catastrophic process, they made very bad decisions on their operations.”
“We can definitely say Russia, strategically, has failed,” he said.
‘We Need Assistance Quickly’
During the first phase of the war after launching a large-scale invasion on February 24, Russia failed in its main priorities to seize the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and potentially oust the government there.
Most Western experts were surprised both at the deep problems with the Russian military that the offensive exposed, but also the dogged and effective defense put up by Ukrainian troops.
Russia eventually withdrew many of its units near Kyiv, and shifted its resources to focus on seizing the port city of Mariupol, which was reduced to Stalingrad-like rubble before the battle for the city effectively ended on May 22. Russia also retooled its command — appointing a single general for a unified command — and focused resources on seizing more ground in eastern and northeastern Ukraine.
After a sputtering start, it now appears to be working — slowly, incrementally, steadily — on the battlefield.
For the moment, anyway.
Several weeks of brutal, house-to-house, street-by-street fighting has resulted in Syevyerodonetsk, a city with a prewar population of around 100,000, being nearly entirely controlled by Russian troops as of June 15, including the city’s center.
Luhansk’s military governor, Serhiy Hayday, said on June 14 that the last bridges across the Siverskiy Donets River leading to the smaller suburb of Lysychansk had been destroyed, all but cutting off evacuation and supply routes for the last troops and civilians remaining in Syevyerodonetsk.
Many of those remaining are holed up in a chemical industrial plant, raising fears of a siege similar to what happened in Mariupol, in the last days before the city fell to Russian control.
Top Ukrainian officials are sounding increasingly dire warnings in recent weeks about the tempo of fighting, and the toll it is taking on Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian officials have also been increasingly vocal in their pleas for more Western weaponry, more quickly — something they hope will be forthcoming after a meeting of the Ukraine Contact Group in Brussels on June 15. “Being straightforward: to end the war we need heavy weapons parity,” Mykhaylo Podolyak, a top aide to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said on Twitter. “We are waiting for a decision.”
“We need assistance quickly,” Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, said in an interview this week with The Economist, “because the cost of any delay is measured in Ukrainian blood.”
A 2,400-Kilometer Front Line
In a statement on Telegram on June 12, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, also called for more Western weaponry, saying that the front line where Ukrainian and Russian forces were facing off stretches more than 2,400 kilometers.
“They use artillery en masse and, unfortunately, they have a tenfold fire advantage,” Zaluzhniy said. “Despite everything, we keep holding our positions. Every meter of Ukrainian land there is spilled with blood, not only ours but also the occupier’s. The situation is difficult, in particular, in the city of Syevyerodonetsk.”
Since the first week of April, when they shifted away from districts north of Kyiv, Russian forces made gradual advances in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the two main districts comprising the Donbas. Western officials have said it would potentially take until August or into September for them to take all of the Donbas.
The towns and villages Russian forces have captured include Svyatohirsk and Svitlodarsk in Donetsk, and Rubizhne and Popasna in Luhansk.
Ukrainian forces are desperately trying to keep Russian forces from capturing the highway that runs southwest to northeast, from Bakhmut to Lysychansk. Closing that road, which Ukrainian officials have dubbed the “road of life,” entirely would all but allow Russian forces to close off a bulge, or salient, whose tip is at Syevyerodonetsk.
Further to the north, Russian troops have now regained some ground after being pushed back from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in early May, according to Britain’s Defense Ministry.
And to the south, in the Kherson region north of occupied Crimea, there are mixed reports about whether a Ukrainian counteroffensive has achieved anything significant.
Ukrainian forces were engaged in heavy fighting with Russian forces on June 13 to the northwest of Kherson, near Davydiv Brid, according to Ukrainian commanders. “The enemy continues to fight, but our units are gradually forcing him to vacate positions and test the strength of the second and third lines of defense, and retreat further in some cases,” Ukraine’s southern command said in a statement.
With the current tempo of operations, Ukrainian officials are scraping to simply find the bullets and shells to load their guns. Most of the ammunition it needs is for Soviet-era designs, which the West has a dwindling supply of and does not manufacture — unlike Russia.
“The United States has literally been scouring the world to find Soviet-standard ammunition to give to the Ukrainians.,” Mark Cancian, a retired U.S. Marine colonel and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL earlier this month. “And my suspicion is that we’re running out of places that will sell us that kind of ammunition.”
Ukraine is also begging for more Western weaponry beyond the materiel that has poured into the country, even before the February 24 invasion.
The single largest supplier is the United States, which says it’s provided around $4.6 billion since the invasion, including thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, drones, and ammunition.
More recently, the weaponry has become heavier, more powerful, and more capable at hitting Russian targets from longer distances, including NATO-standard 155-mm artillery systems like the French-built CAESAR and Polish-built KRAB self-propelled howitzers, as well as Soviet-built T-72 tanks.
The United States and Britain are currently shipping several types of multiple-launch rocket systems, including with high-precision ammunition.
But for the moment, Washington is only sending four high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), which means their ability to significantly shift the tide of battle could be limited.
However, they have yet to arrive.
Boston says the Russian progress is slow, and that its rate of fire for artillery shells and rockets is not sustainable. “There are tactical victories [for Russia] on the horizon, but I don’t see a path to an overall strategic victory,” said Boston, now an analyst with the Rand Corporation, an influential U.S. think tank funded in part by the U.S. military.
“I think what we’re headed for is mutual exhaustion. Anything Russia tries to do, inflicting more losses on Ukrainian forces, that will be a very expensive endeavor,” he said.
“Broadly speaking, Ukraine has a chance, but this chance is connected with weapons” from the West, Samus told RFE/RL. “If we have weapons, we will have the chance to ‘de-occupy’ some of the territories held by Russia, to what they were before February 24.
“And if that happens, it means Putin will have problems,” he said. “Big problems.”
- Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He’s reported on the ground on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.