Ukraine Update: One side knows how to fight a war, and it’s not Russia

Ukraine Update: One side knows how to fight a war, and it’s not Russia

This past Monday, a local Telegram account gave us the first inkling something was happening near Kharkiv, in Ukraine’s northeast. The account claimed that Ukraine had pushed Russians out of Staryi Saltiv, well east of the last known Ukrainian positions around Kharkiv (as well as complained that withdrawing Russians had run over his aviary). It’s as if Ukraine had leap-frogged a whole string of villages en route to the key city on the Donets. Today, we finally got confirmation from Ukraine General Staff that they had, indeed, taken all the towns between Kharkiv and Staryi Saltiv.

Ukrainian gains east/northeast of Kharkiv, in light yellow.

Ukraine General Staff’s territorial claims have always been extremely conservative, usually lagging early reports by days. In this case, four to five days. They don’t just want to take the town, they want to be sure they can hold it. Perhaps Russia doesn’t even know what’s happening, given the poor state of their communications equipment and systems. Waiting also keeps Russia’s general staff guessing. 

Ukraine is also gaining ground west of Izyum, the territory Russia won by pushing in the exact opposite direction from their main objective—the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk to Izyum’s southeast.  

White marks the territory Ukraine has retaken, west of Izyum.

Russia’s Izyum salient has been frozen since last … Friday or so, about a week, despite being the most heavily reinforced axis of the entire war with around 22 battalion tactical groups (BTG).

A BTG, on paper, is supposed to have 1,000 men, 10 tanks, and 40 infantry fighting vehicles. The reality is around half that. The Ukrainian side lists brigades, which are around 2-3x the strength of a BTG. (Henry Schlottman|@HN_Schlottman on Twitter)

Why has Russia stopped advancing, and is now losing ground, in its most heavily reinforced part of Ukraine? Because, here we go again, they can’t manage long supply lines. Look how long the Izyum supply lines are:

Supply lines in purple.

Directly north of Izyum, that entire stretch of major highway is in range of Ukrainian artillery, and just like they did around Sumy earlier in the war, Ukraine has feasted on Russian equipment.

#Ukraine: Near Izyum, as claimed, a Russian tank and 2x BMP(-2) were destroyed by Ukrainian fire. pic.twitter.com/GnKMdxkc5W

— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) May 6, 2022

Meanwhile, see all that white on the map above? That’s territory recaptured by Ukraine in recent days. That means even more of that supply line is exposed to indirect Ukrainian artillery fire, and so is the town of Volchansk, on the Russian border—the primary road and rail supply line from the key Russian city of Belgorod. 

Indeed, the collapse of Russian lines around Kharkiv has become so dire that Russia’s border is at risk, with Belgorod within range of Ukrainian artillery. Russia seemingly has no choice but to reinforce, but … from where? 

Not Izyum, that’s for sure. Russia is getting spanked there.

Captured/destroyed Russian equipment reportedly during the battles in Izyum axis, Kharkiv Oblast.#Russia #Ukraine pic.twitter.com/ZwZSJ1uFAD

— BlueSauron👁️ (@Blue_Sauron) May 6, 2022

In the Severodonetsk direction, Russia picked up one village and crept ever closer to that city. Their problem is that Russia is still fighting for territory on the north side of the Donets river. Ukraine has plenty of room to retreat tactically, trading territory for blood until they hit the river. And for all its troubles, Russia is then stuck on the wrong side of the river, where Ukraine’s defenses are even stronger. (I wrote about the importance of rivers for Ukraine’s defense in late March.)

In other words, Ukraine isn’t even at its strongest defensive position yet in that corner of the front lines. That’s why Izyum was so important—it’s the first and only place where Russia managed to cross the Donets, thus threatening Ukraine’s rear.

There’s nothing anywhere near Izyum or Severodonetsk to send to the border near Kharkiv. Nor Kherson down south, also under pressure from Ukrainian counter-offensives. The troops pulled out of Mariupol are going to the Donetsk direction, just north of Mariupol, where Russian troops are also stuck. Russia has really made a mess of things! 

From the very beginning, Russia had too few troops for such a big country. It diluted those troops across too many axes of attack. It pulled out of the Kyiv area after a bloody debacle, but Russia is still spread too thin, and attacks at random, without consideration of any broader strategic goal like that push west of Izyum. Those attacks are the usual drip-drip-drip, proving daily that Russia simply cannot open the spigot and attack en masse. It never has, and seemingly never will.

Ukraine has played it smart, playing rope-a-dope with Russia, attriting its forces, pinning them down, and then counter-attacking judiciously, never over-committing, but probing weaknesses in Russia’s lines. It’s no mistake that Ukraine is counterattacking in the two regions (Kharkiv and Kherson) that have the fewest number of committed Russian forces. 

Ukraine is still not ready for a true massed counteroffensive—Russia’s advantage in artillery and air support make that too risky. But the balance shifts slowly toward Ukraine every single day, with every tank and artillery gun destroyed, with every warplane and helicopter shot down, and with every Russian and proxy soldier taken off the field.

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