Ukraine update: Cutting through the fog to get some sense of what’s happening at Staryi Saltiv

Ukraine update: Cutting through the fog to get some sense of what’s happening at Staryi Saltiv

I’ve written before about the danger of basing any interpretation of what’s happening on the ground on the data from NASA’s FIRMS instruments. A collection of orbiting spectrographs and infrared sensors are not a substitute of any sort for reports on the ground. They can’t distinguish artillery from a forest fire, can’t tell what the source of any fire might be, and absolutely can’t fit all those little colored squares into any kind of narrative. Using FIRMS data requires interpretation, and interpretation risks being absolutely, 100% wrong.

With that warning in place … here I go again, because Ukraine’s rapid gains north of Kharkiv may be the most interesting sequence of events in the whole of the invasion, and what’s now going on east of Staryi Saltiv may be the most interesting part of that whole Ukrainian counteroffensive. But through the whole operation, not just whatever may be going on east of the river, Ukraine has played activity in this area very close to the vest. Actions like the recapture of Staryi Saltiv, or the fast march to Ternova, weren’t reported from any official source until days after they had taken place and sizable areas around the towns in question were under Ukrainian control.

To be absolutely clear, Ukraine owes us, the highly interested war-watching public, absolutely nothing. They owe the guys actually on the ground, doing the fighting, everything. There are very clear tactical and strategic reasons why Ukraine sometimes pulls out the Fog of War machine and layers their actions in secrecy, just as there are also clear reasons why they sometimes decide to blow away that fog long enough to report a triumph that thrills the armchair generals and, more importantly, keeps the folks on the ground properly chuffed. 

Right now, the fog has rolled in. So let’s once again pull out the satellite pics and do a little time-lapse of the entire Staryi Saltiv area. In the process, we’ll tell a story, but please understand that story may be no more accurate than those which begin “Once upon a time …”

May 7-8: Ukraine clears positions around the Staryi Saltiv bridge

NASA FIRMS data, May 7. Staryi Saltive area.

Just a day after initial reports that Ukrainian forces had recaptured Staryi Saltiv, after moving quickly over a dozen kilometers and bypassing other areas of Russian control, FIRMS started reporting some hot spots in a strange area. It appeared that Ukraine was shelling locations on the east side of the river, directly around the other end of the Staryi Saltiv bridge. This was especially strange, because it was known that this bridge had been purposely damaged by Russian forces and was impassable.

The best assumption at the time was that Ukraine was clearing out possible Russian artillery on the east bank, but there doesn’t seem to be any return fire from the Russian side.

NASA FIRMS. May 8. Staryi Saltiv area.

A day later, and the shelling around the east end of the bridge has stopped. Instead, the only action is one kilometer to the north. A detailed look suggests this fire was right on top of a hotel whose name translates roughly into “Silver Pine Lodge.” It seems like a nice place: 240 rooms, rec center, built-in movie theater. But “seemed” is probably the right word. In the spirit of speculation, did Ukraine get word this hotel, and the Sosnovy Bor rec center under that northernmost yellow block, were being used by Russian forces? Sure. Why not?

What happens next is … nothing. Just under a solid week of nothing. That doesn’t mean that nothing was happening. Actions involved might not have included heavy use of artillery. FIRMS is also not perfect, and at least two of the days involved included heavy rain and overcast skies. It’s not until May 13 (a relatively clear day) that FIRMS lights up again, and when it does, the location is really puzzling.

NASA FIRMS. May 13. Staryi Saltiv area.

On this day, all the fire is directed east of Rubizhne, but not really across the river. Instead, this is all in the series of small islands and marshes located west of the main river channel. Previously, I speculated that might be Russian artillery firing into the location where Ukraine was trying to construct some kind of bridge. However, it could also be Ukraine firing into an area where Russian forces had retreated. In any case, all of this fire is happening in an area half a kilometer south of the normal bridge at Rubizhne, a bridge known to be demolished by Russian forces. Honestly, if I could get one person from the Ukrainian team in the area and ask them what was going on, it would be, “What the heck were you shooting at around Rubizhne?” Just wait a second. This question will come up again.

May 14 and 15 are absolutely quiet, so far as FIRMS is concerned. This doesn’t mean that Ukraine and Russia were not going at it with everything from kitchen spoons to heavy machine guns. It’s just that nothing in the area tweaked the hot spot sensors on FIRMS. Those spots are back again on May 16.

NASA FIRMS. May 16. Staryi Saltiv area.

Now the fire is coming down in three areas. On the east side, there are scattered strikes in Zarichne and east of Metalivka. On the west side, there are a cluster of hot spots actually south of Rubizhne, in an area that had reportedly been under Ukrainian control for some days. This is the day that social media chatter—including reports on Telegram from Russian sources—indicated that Ukraine had crossed the river in force. It’s certainly easy to interpret the pattern of impacts on the east side as coming from artillery that had been moved across the bridge at Staryi Saltiv and directed north. 

What’s going on south of Rubizhne? I. Do. Not. Know. Not only is this supposedly an area under Ukrainian control at this point, but the area where these hot spots are located is pretty much empty. Like … empty. There are relatively dense levels of buildings to the north and south; there are open fields on the west, marshes on the right, and partially nothing but the highway worth targeting. Russian forces attempting to halt the flow of Ukrainian troops up the highway? Possible. Again, this is a puzzler.

NASA FIRMS. May 17. Staryi Saltiv area.

A day later and the fire around Zarichne is gone while that east of Metalivka has increased. There’s still some of that heat on the west side near Rubizhne, but it’s considerably reduced from the previous day. It’s very tempting to read this day as Ukrainian forces moving north from the Staryi Saltiv bridge to recapture Zarichne and continue their path toward Vovchansk. Supporting this were several unofficial reports that Ukrainian forces had occupied Zarichne. Maybe the reduced fire on the west bank is happening because Russian artillery is getting driven back or destroyed on the right bank, but again, that’s something I’m pulling from my … hat. Let’s say hat.

Meanwhile, if Ukrainian forces also crossed east of Rubizhne, there seems to be no sign of them. Again, they could be going at it hammer and tongs so long as they didn’t employ something that registered with FIRMS, but other than some apparently panicked announcements from Russians convinced that Ukraine was just about to capture Vovchansk, there doesn’t seem to be any sign of fighting in Verkhnya Pysarivka or other villages to the north.

Then May 18 comes and there is … nothing. Not one hot spot in the whole area. In fact, it’s so quiet that some of the same sources that first reported Ukraine crossing the river begin to backtrack and make claims that maybe it was just a few special forces types crossing in boats to cause havoc. Maybe there’s no real bridgehead at all. 

And then …

NASA FIRMS. May 19. Staryi Saltiv area.

Kaboom. Those two areas in the image are red rather than yellow because they were all detected between six and 12 hours ago. There’s no more fire east of Metalivka. Instead, everything has moved above the town of Buhakiva on the east. There’s also fire again on the west side, but now that fire is west of Rubizhne.

Again, the hot spots on the east make it appear that Ukraine is proceeding to the north. Not only are there now some very unofficial reports that Ukraine has taken Metalivka and Buhaivka, one of the Russian Telegram sources reports that Ukraine took Buhaivka from the north. So did Ukraine manage to move forces across the river at Rubizhne after all? However they got there, if Ukrainian troops really are in Buhaivka, that puts them just 16 km (10 miles) down a wide road that runs straight to Vovchansk. Russian panickers, start your engines.

However, there were also reports that today was going to be the day of a Russian counteroffensive. Or counter-counteroffensive. So perhaps these hot spots mark Russian troops pushing down from Vovchansk on the east and Starytsa on the west to block any Ukrainian advance. It would be pretty odd for Russia to be firing into a town it supposedly controls, but, you know, Russia. 

There’s also something of an odd coincidence here that suggests whoever is creating these hot spots is responsible for both east and west. The hot spots appeared on both sides of the river on the 16th, and again on the 17th. On the 18th, both sides were quiet. Then on the 19th, both sides are lit up again. If this was really Russia and Ukraine exchanging shells across the river, it seems odd that both sides would flip on, then off, then on together. After all, if you were aware of enemy positions across the river that you could hit, why stop firing? Shouldn’t there at least be a “tail” where one side keeps firing for hours after the other side has gone still? And if Russia is firing across the river, why are they firing everywhere around Rubizhne, but not at Rubizhne? 

One of these days—a day within the next two weeks, almost certainly—these mysteries will become clear. Until then, I think my hat is empty. And analysts who said this on Tuesday evening: 

#Ukraine has launched an offensive with powerful weapons in the #Kharkhov area. Perhaps it is new western artillery, perhaps it is launching missiles such as Tochka U as well. The thermal footprints are intense. There are reports that UA forces crossed at Staryi Saltiv, captured

— Erik Zimerman (@ZimermanErik) May 18, 2022

Said this a few minutes later:

There is an ongoing debate over the scale, or even existence of the entire Ukrainian operation east of the Siverskyi Donets River, and I’m absolutely not in a position to break the tie. But if you happen to be on the ground in Metalivka or Buhaivka … call me.

Thursday, May 19, 2022 · 10:04:17 PM +00:00 · Mark Sumner

Before you tell Germany that Ukraine doesn’t need those MiGs, note that this is only useful for charity purposes

Friday, May 20, 2022 · 3:37:52 AM +00:00

Mark Sumner

Now we have at least a partial answer: the hot spots on the west side of the river represented part of that Russian counter-attack. In their counter attack, they’ve reportedly retaken both Rubizhne and Ternova, rolling back these Ukrainian victories.

This makes it seem more likely that: 1) Ukraine has in fact captured Buhaivka, and 2) the firing in that area today was Russia attacking that Ukrainian advance.

Expect more shortly when we have information on what size of force was involved in the Russian advance, and whether they are continuing to push south.

Thursday, May 19, 2022 · 8:15:17 PM +00:00 · Mark Sumner

Breaking: The latest $100M package of aid to Ukraine includes -18 155mm Howitzers -18 tactical vehicles to tow the Howitzers -3 AN/TPQ-36 counter-artillery radars -Field equipment and spare parts via @PentagonPresSec

— Lara Seligman (@laraseligman) May 19, 2022

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