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Severodonetsk will decide Ukraine’s future Putin has pivoted to a war of attrition

Welcome to No Man's Land (ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Welcome to No Man's Land (ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images)


June 8, 2022   3 mins

More than 100 days on, the fate of Russia’s campaign to capture the entirety of the Luhansk region still hangs in the balance. If the whole Luhansk region falls, the rest of Ukraine’s east may very likely follow. Both the Russian and Ukrainian forces have committed their forces here for strategic reasons — the territory is critical for a continued Russian advance in the direction of cities such as Dnipro. President Zelenskyy understands this, which is why he made an unannounced visit to Lysychansk at the weekend.

The last uncontested town in the region still controlled by Zelenskyy’s forces, Lysychansk is now a crucial base for the Ukrainian artillery: it is within shooting range of the strategically critical town of Severodonetsk, where the Ukrainians are making a valiant stand against Russian forces. The Kremlin has made clear its strategic need to capture the industrial town: while military operations in other fronts have ground to a halt, vast material and reserve troop formations, as well as concentrated artillery strikes, have been thrown against Severodonetsk.

Lysychansk is within striking range of Russian artillery and is therefore hardly a secure area for the Ukrainian President to visit: a senior Russian general in command of that sector was reported to have been killed by the Ukrainians merely a few miles away from the garrison over the weekend. If anything, the continued attrition of senior Russian command staff is as remarkable as the presence of a commander-in-chief in the middle of the war theatre. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: To lose a general in battle is surely a misfortune; but lose a general in battle every single week over the course of 14 weeks, and it starts to look like carelessness.

After Russian forces occupied most of Severodonetsk, the Ukrainians attempted a surprise counterattack with fresh reserves and foreign volunteer battalions. The last three days have seen various parts of the town including its centre and industrial zone change hands several times. Public statements have been contradictory but the governor of the region claims Ukraine still controls at least parts of Severodonetsk. Indeed, much of the pro-Kyiv commentariat has framed the counterattack as a cunning trap set to lure remnants of Russian troops reserves out from beneath the cover of their artillery support. Large swathes of the town seem to have changed hands over the 24 hours on several occasions.

The confusion over the Ukrainian offensive — and whether it may have been organised to coincide with the presidential visit — illustrates just how difficult it is to understand the fluidly evolving battle zone. This is true even in the age of Telegram and Twitter, though Ukrainian troops in Severodonetsk have told me that the fighting is fierce and there have been tremendous casualties on both sides. Video footage of pro-Russian separatists shows them being equipped with Soviet-era helmets and bolt-action rifles from the Second World War. By all accounts, the centre of Severodonetsk is now a no man’s land and even when I visited Lysychansk a month ago — before the latest round of fighting — the residents had already mostly fled. Both towns are now unliveable.

In the long term, the churn of the incremental battle for eastern Ukraine also signals how the Kremlin has recalibrated its approach to the war. Its hapless early performance and disastrous decision-making has taken its toll, and the Russian high command has implicitly acknowledged that it had overstretched its forces and pulled back from the north of the country in order to concentrate assaults in the south and east. The Russian military advances have withdrawn from Kherson and Zhaporozhia, as well as from the city of Kharkiv.

The Kremlin has now pivoted towards outlasting Kyiv in a prolonged war of attrition. Faced with a concentrated Russian counterattack around the Severodonetsk salient, the optimistic narrative surrounding Ukraine’s resistance has started to slip away. This sense of exhaustion arose from a number of battlefield reversals. President Putin — despite the rampant and unverified speculations about the state of his health — seems to have doubled down on the idea that Russia can weather its international sanctions regime while methodically ratcheting up existing divides within the Western Alliance.

The recent Russian rocket attacks on an important grain silo in Mykolaiv, the systematic theft of grain stocks and the doomed negotiations over the possibility of its export through so-called humanitarian corridors all illustrate the future of the Russian strategy. Moscow hopes to disrupt global supply chains, create artificial famines and crank up energy prices across Europe and Africa. The next phase of its war seems to be just getting started.

Meanwhile, the widespread fantasies of an economically-driven Russian popular uprising, a palace coup in the Kremlin or the shuffling of the Russian Presidency by Russian elites show no sign of manifesting. As the slow grind in Luhansk indicates, the Ukrainians are in for a long and painful conflict of incremental losses and victories. The first 100 days of the war are over — they won’t be the last.


Vladislav Davidzon is a Russian-American writer, the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

VladDavidzon

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Snapper AG
AG
Snapper AG
1 year ago

No it won’t. The loss or gain of one mid-sized city that is effectively ruined means very little. Large scale mobile warfare will determine Ukraine’s fate. They need to force the Russians into maneuver warfare, where they are weak.

Carlos Danger
CD
Carlos Danger
1 year ago

Looks like the war has come down to fighting over the same region that the two sides have fought over for 8 years, since the first Battle of Mariupol in 2014.
Crimea looks unlikely to ever leave Russia now, so the question is what about Donetsk and Luhansk? In theory at least part of those oblasts has been independent since 2014 and after the Russian invasion became part of Russia. Will they ever go back?
Then there is the corridor between the Donbas region and Crimea which Russia has now won control of, cutting off Ukraine from access to the Sea of Azov. Can Ukraine get that back?
Volodymyr Zelenskyy puts on a brave front but is not realistic in thinking that Ukraine can win back all this territory. He has kept Ukraine independent but no matter what happens the tensions in the east will not go away.
Maybe the Minsk accords were not such a bad deal after all and Ukraine should have lived up to its agreement.

Philip Crook
PC
Philip Crook
1 year ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Putin wants to be Stalin. He comes from an old communist KGB background where the last successful leader of the USSR and implicitly Russia was Joseph Stalin. Stalin smashed Ukrainian nationalism by starving them to death in the government created famine of 1923/33 when about 5 million Ukrainians were deliberately starved during the imposition of the collective farm programme and the removal of all grain and food supplies to Russia. Ukraine has been a festering sore to Putin ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence. He wants to imitate Stalin and to be seen as the strong leader taking Russia back to greatness. So he will keep going until he annexes sufficient land in Luhansk and Donetsk to call the territory part of Russia. This means legitimate attacks and attempts to recover Ukrainian territory will be seen as attack on Russia with implications for the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Martin Johnson
MJ
Martin Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  Philip Crook

You claim great insight into Putin’s inner mind and motivations, things not apparent in the public record. Are you his psychiatrist or a close confidant? Or do you just repeat what you have been told, contrary to other evidence.

chris sullivan
CS
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

philip’s case seems reasonable to me – or are we missing something obvious here -please enlighten ??

chris sullivan
CS
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Philip Crook

cant help feeling that the present scenario also reeks of germany 1938 etc – and thats a hell of a combination – stalin PLUS hitler. If shocck and awe was the goal it is certainly working on me !

Carl Buzawa
CB
Carl Buzawa
1 year ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Your response assumes that Putin “lived up” to Minsk. That is pure claptrap. Putin as early as a year ago was issuing essays saying that the Raie was not a real state, plus the so called “rebels”, headed by Russian GRU units and backed bythe Russian military were continuously firing into the rest of the Ukraine. Your answer simpky ignores the fact that Putin uses :hybrid warfare” over an extended time whether in Georgia, Moldova, or as we have seen here, the Ukraine. He has an itch that can’t be scratched without the Ukraine falling to Russia’s hands.

Saul D
SD
Saul D
1 year ago

The Ukrainian defensive lines in Donetsk, dating from 2014, that had held firm for weeks while the Russians moved across the open borders to the north and south have been crossed and slowly erased in the last period. As the maps have shown the Russians have been grinding their way forwards across those lines, despite the optimistic propaganda from the Ukrainians.
What we don’t know is how this is affecting Ukrainian strength. An army under continual defensive pressure, taking losses, being pushed back, and without dug-in defensive positions can lead to a sudden and dramatic large-scale withdrawal and collapse (cf Russian around Kiev). Everything could change very quickly were this to happen.
As neither side will want to fight in winter, there may also be an implicit timescale. If the first snows come in November, by September or latest October, Russians will want to be securing their positions for winter. In addition, the US and Europeans would also be facing their most severe economic and energy costs. Would this then give the Russians a negotiable end-point?

Iris C
IC
Iris C
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

I wonder how much support Zelensky has in Ukraine for accepting more deadly weapons to continue this war against the odds of actually winning. He is the leader of a political party and I feel there must be opposition to policies which continue destroying the country’s infrastructure and the livelihood of the people.
I am also concerned about us sending long-range missiles to Ukraine. There has been an undertaking not to fire these into Russia but accidents happen. Even accidents with ulterior motives!
Every country is suffering as a result of this war and it is time for serious negotiations to take place.. At least I think so!

tim hardacre
TH
tim hardacre
1 year ago
Reply to  Iris C

There was opposition to Elensky’s policies until the opposition was jailed or the media opposing him were closed down by decree.

Paul O
PO
Paul O
1 year ago
Reply to  Iris C

Alas negotiations, diplomacy and a desire for peace don’t appear to be a thing these days. People seem to prefer keeping this proxy war going at all costs, even if it is causing loss of life, hardship on our own people, depletion of our own armaments, spending of money that was desperately needed within our own economy (health service, etc).

You’d think we would learn from our conflicts in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, but every time the politicians and media manage to justify the lies and propaganda and arms dealers and contractors make billions. War is a hugely profitable business for some people.

I know I will get lots of down votes for this comment as most people seem to be willing to fight to the last Ukrainian, and even risk nuclear Armageddon rather than use diplomacy.

I am happy to take the flack as one day people will look back and realise that this is just another Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc.

Give peace a chance I say.

Friedrich Tellberg
FT
Friedrich Tellberg
1 year ago

If Russia’s strategy is to disrupt global supply chains, create artificial famines and crank up energy prices, it needs yet to find someone else to put the blame on. Otherwise it is going to backfire on them. The non Western world did not join the West in sanctioning, but so far it didn’t give any support to Russia either. Fat chance such a strategy of world wide impoverishment will convince many countries to take Russia’s side.

Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

Not much here about Russia slowly bleeding to death in this war of attrition. This is far far worse than their losses in Afghanistan. Meanwhile they still think they can front up to NATO with conventional weapons?
At the end of the day Ukraine doesn’t really matter to the world, if Russia has been fatally undermined. Sad but true.
And it means China won’t have a decent ally to go up against the unified west. It really couldn’t have worked out any better for the west, as some (nudge, nudge) confidently predicted over a year ago as writers and commentators praised the genius of Putin and Xi Ping.

martin logan
ML
martin logan
1 year ago

It is a war of attrition–but attrition of the Russian economy.
Regardless of the outcome for Ukraine, we need to keep up the economic pressure on Russia. Make the ban on western parts permanent. Wean the West off of fossil fuels. Keep Russia out of SWIFT.
The blockade eventually forced Germany to surrender in WW1, after its flash in the pan offensive in 1918.
Only economic weakness will deter Russia now or in future.

Jon Hawksley
JH
Jon Hawksley
1 year ago
Reply to  martin logan

Oil and gas sanctions have pushed prices up more than they have reduced sales to Russia so the West suffers more than Russia. That is not attrition.

Jon Hawksley
JH
Jon Hawksley
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Meant sales by Russia

Carl Buzawa
CB
Carl Buzawa
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

That is but one measure-you are looking only at the side that effects the West. Not the fact that Russia is losing technology needed to keep its oil fields running and its employment is shrinking . Wait 6 months and the West will adjust to higher energy prices whereas the Russian economy will shrink-even the Bank of Russia estimates a shrinkage of 12% or so-whereas the rest of the World may go to a mild recession.
‘But of course Moscow’s “keyboard Warriors” refuse to acknowledge this-as they haven’t yet been given instructions to do so.

martin logan
ML
martin logan
1 year ago
Reply to  Carl Buzawa

This simply looks like a Russian replay of Operation Michael–with inevitably the same results.
If Putin expected to win, he should have called for full mobilization 3 months ago.
This is far to late.

Paul O
PO
Paul O
1 year ago
Reply to  Carl Buzawa

You mean like the ruble turned to rubble, as Biden put it. These predictions of Russians demise seem to be very popular in the MSM, but always seem to be way off target.

And just to be clear. I am not a Russian keyboard warrior. Just someone who spends my days reading unbiased investment reports and in-depth economic analysis.

chris sullivan
CS
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul O

Agreed – it seems clear that Putin is unconcerned about collateral damage to the russian people – as has always been the case in that God-forsaken country.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago
Reply to  martin logan

Had Germany reverted to the defensive on the Western Front in 1918 things would have ended very differently.
They had already triumphed in the East, thanks to the genius of Max Hoffman, who had thrashed the Czar, Kerensky and the Bolsheviks in short order.
By the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk Germany acquired a vast slice of Russia including the Ukraine. This ‘windfall’ would have more than negated the effects of the‘blockade’, but it was not be, thanks to arrogance Ludendorff & Co

Andrew F
AF
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Are there any serious historians of ww1 who subscribe to your view?
After USA entered the war, it was only matter of time before Germany lost.
In order to control this vast slice of Russia, Germany would require many divisions, which were not available and not easily deployable due to size of the territory gained and logistic difficulties.
Yes, Germany forced Russia to quit ww1 thanks to their agent Lenin, but end result was unavoidable.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Those Divisions you speak of were redeployed to the Western Front for ’Ludendorff’s great offensive that commenced on the 21st March 1918. But you MUST know that?
Had Germany remained on the defensive on the Hindenburg Line no doubt the Americans would have thrown everything they had at it, and been slaughtered in their thousands, just the ‘Allies’ had been before at the Somme, Passchendaele and Verdun.I think a breakthrough would have been very unlikely particularly with a gung-ho idiot like Pershing in command.
Lenin had little to do with the utter rout of the Bolshevik army by Hoffman as even that wretch Trotsky finally admitted.’They’ surrendered at B-L to save their awful Revolution.
Most modern (serious) historians, with the exception of the late Norman Stone, studiously avoid this subject for obvious reasons. Even in recent weeks, as the Ukrainian War drags on, I have seen absolutely no mention of the fact that the only brief period of quasi independence that Ukraine has ever had in many centuries of occupation, was that courtesy of the German Army and Max Hoffman in 1918.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Why on Earth post this now, at 09.00 BST, when it was written a full 12 hours ago? Unless off courses the idea is prevent any discussion! In which case it has been a howling success, well done UnHerd, you’ve live up your name admirably.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew F

It looks like the Censor has forbidden a reply, probably boring the other readers. However I beg to disagree, as I think the late Norman Stone would have done.

2I:50 BST.

Last edited 1 year ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Paul O
PO
Paul O
1 year ago
Reply to  martin logan

Otherwise known as cutting off your whole face to spite your nose.

The people suffering most from sanctions are normal people in the west and things are going to get a LOT worse.

People are moaning that it is Putin’s fault that petrol is £2 a litre on the motorways and that fuel bills are going through the roof, but the reality is these crazy prices were caused by:

1. Sanctions our govts imposed.

2. Insane money printing by our govts.

3. Poorly thought through ‘green’ policies conjured up by our govts to win votes.

Our govts are the architects of our demise, not Putin.

martin logan
ML
martin logan
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul O

Since the alternative is to allow Putin to dominate Europe, those actually don’t seem that important.

Herd Management
HM
Herd Management
1 year ago

Putin will be forced to implement Order 227 just as Stalin did. Russia will need to come up with more men somehow.

D F
DF
D F
1 year ago

Wheat for Rubles has collective west in panic mode. Over the past few weeks, Western officials have repeatedly stressed that the problem with the availability of food is getting worse. And first of all – and to the most serious extent – it affects developing states.
At the same time, Russia is blamed for the problems in the West. Which allegedly prevents the export of grain from Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea. We are talking about 20 million tons of last year’s harvest. As if the solution of food problems, which obviously did not arise yesterday, depends only on this …
It should be noted that Russia supplies more food to world markets than Ukraine. But despite this, Western countries have imposed sanctions that clearly do not contribute to the stability of supplies.
Dmitry Medvedev, commenting on the situation, noted that “all these hellish sanctions are worthless when it comes to vital things”: “On the supply of energy resources in order to heat houses. On food to feed people. On millions of citizens who politicians need, in general, one thing: the opportunity to live normally, calmly and prosperously. Sanctions prevent this. And the expansion of NATO prevents. And mess with settlements on debts, payments and other. And what hinders me most of all is my own cosmic cretinism.”
https://open.spotify.com/episode/3x9Bww1DN8cku6s1iMq0AG?fbclid=IwAR1dBDGrIoDMoZV3iFYYlv19v-20G1hnVo-D_wP1Ar_467j6j5Tc-RM7BQw

Last edited 1 year ago by D F
martin logan
ML
martin logan
1 year ago
Reply to  D F

The only way to create a normal world is to insure that Russia goes back to the 90s, if not worse–and stays there for two or three generations.
That was the only way Germany was “cured” of its past horrendous history. It will probably lead to teh secession of quite a bit of Russian territory. But that is teh consequence of Putin’s decision–not ours.
The Future Defederation of Russia – The Moscow Times
If we don’t decisively impoverish Putin’s Russia, he will just try it again in Poland and the Baltics.

Last edited 1 year ago by martin logan
Lisa I
LI
Lisa I
1 year ago
Reply to  martin logan

You’re describing the treatment of Germany after the first world war.Germany was disarmed and restrictions replaced on its tearmament but they recovered military within a decade.
That didn’t cure Germany, it fuelled the rise of the Nazi party.
How Germany was treated after the second world war cured it. Marshall plan, Euripean engagement etc,

Avoiding WW1 style revenge must have been very unpalatable for the allies at the time but the Americans pushed it through. This is why Macron talks about Russia not being humiliated. He and others are afraid of a Versailles 2.0.

Punishment of Russia would be more emotionally satisfying but ‘those who ignore history etc,

Last edited 1 year ago by Lisa I
martin logan
ML
martin logan
1 year ago
Reply to  Lisa I

No, I’m describing the SECOND treatment in both cases. We were easy on Russia after its collapse in 1991. Far easier than the Allies were on Germany in 1919.
But Russia only thought of revenge–as did many Germans after 1919.
Until Russia is thoroughly made over, as Nazi Germany was–arguably with the same federal system–we can never have peace.

Peter Branagan
PB
Peter Branagan
1 year ago

Extraordinary! Mr Davizon appears to have been totally taken in by Western hate propaganda. His attitude reminds me of the Jüdenrat from 1941 to 1945.

BTW despite his comments to the contrary Kherson remains very firmly in Russian control where the Rouble is now the official currency; the mobile phone service has switched to +7 and all IP addresses are routed via Russia.

Judy Englander
JE
Judy Englander
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

The reference to the Judenrat is inappropriate and tells us more about you than Mr Davidzon.

Carl Buzawa
CB
Carl Buzawa
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

I suspect “Mr Brannigan” lives in St Petersburg

martin logan
ML
martin logan
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

You miss the point that Russia has always been a Failure Oriented Civilization.
From the nobility, to the nomenklatura, to the Power Vertical, Russia is never about competence, only about loyalty. So no matter how many tanks and aircraft Russia has, it can never win a war on this scale. Most of the (at least marginally competent) are already dead–because they were the only one’s willing to lead. What’s left are the equivalent of NKVD skulkers in WW2.
Putin’s Russians dream of taking France–and cannot even take all of Sieverodonetsk.
Typical comment of theirs:
Operation Z+: On Raising the Iron Curtain Which Hangs Over Europe | The Vineyard of the Saker

Last edited 1 year ago by martin logan
james goater
JG
james goater
1 year ago
Reply to  martin logan

Much appreciate your posting this link – initially, quite disturbing. Clearly the work of a deluded ill-educated provocateur, but does he actually believe what he writes? The mislabelling and distortions are, quite literally, breath-taking.

martin logan
ML
martin logan
1 year ago
Reply to  james goater

Just read Patrushev’s interview, also in the Vineyard of the Saker.
Did people believe German govt propaganda after 1933? Did the German govt believe it? they seem to–enough to have started a World War.