Ukraine Update: Ukraine makes a move in Kherson, while things remain desperate in the east

Ukraine Update: Ukraine makes a move in Kherson, while things remain desperate in the east

Yesterday I wondered why Ukraine was so hell-bent on defending Severodonetsk,  isolated on a deep salient surrounded on three sides and no natural barriers, when those forces could simply cross the river and hold out in a much more defensible Lysychansk. Retired Australian general Mick Ryan pondered the same today, noting that “the tactical and political necessity to hold out in Severodonetsk is questionable.”

11/ Not only would this preserve important Ukrainian Army brigades, but it might also shorten the ‘frontage’ or the length of the defensive front, that the Ukrainians need to defend in this part of the Donbas. It also lengthens Russian supply lines.

— Mick Ryan, AM (@WarintheFuture) May 28, 2022

Russia’s recent successes on the eastern Donbas front are, in large part, attributed to their short supply lines. Russia runs into problems when those lines are stretched. That wall of artillery they’ve rained on Ukrainian defensive positions? That gets a lot tougher when you have to truck ammunition to those thirsty artillery batteries kilometers from the railheads that feed the Russian army. Same with fuel. 

Losing Popasna to the Russians wasn’t great, obviously, but their push from that new salient has already slowed to a crawl. And while Russia is gaining about a kilometer a day from the Popasna direction (not an exaggeration), a tactical local Ukrainian counterattack recaptured some ground—the town of Komyshuvakha directly north of Popasna:

This doesn’t mean Russia isn’t advancing, it doesn’t mean they might not retake Komyshuvakha tomorrow, it just means that advancing is hard, the fighting is fierce, and Russia still struggles to extend from its main supply depots. That’s why Ukraine’s insistence on defending Severodonetsk is so perplexing, regardless of how well they think they can defend it. As I keep pointing out, even if Russia takes the city and its neighbor Lysychansk, Ukraine has the twin stronghold cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in the way of any further Russian advances, both far more defensible by Ukrainian artillery. 

Russia’s strategy is to take the entire Donbas region, Ukraine’s is to bide time for western weapons (like MLRS/HIMARS) to arrive and its reserves to spin up. Like that new Ukrainian tank brigade recently activated near Kryvyi Rih, cobbled together from reservists, Polish tanks, and Dutch armored personnel carriers. 

Ukraine just declared the brigade fully activated this week, and we’ve been wondering where it might show up. We know Ukraine has been reinforcing the Donbas front, so the was a logical destination. But this bit of surprising news suggests that they might have their sights set on Kherson in the south. 

“танковый прорыв возле населенного пункта Давыдов Брод” 🤔 pic.twitter.com/y1kY9OdRQj

— IgorGirkin (@GirkinGirkin) May 27, 2022

Igor Girkin was in charge of Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas during the 2014 war, and is a rabid Russian nationalist (Mark wrote more about him here). He remains well connected to Russian and separatist military sources. And what he’s saying in that tweet is that there was a tank breakthrough near the village of Davydiv Brid. (Ukrainian presidential advisor Aleksey Arestovych separately confirmed a counter-offensive in the area.) If Girkin is right, we’re talking here, where the red marker is:

This town is directly in the center of the most direct supply lines from Nova Kahkovka further south to Russian troops that have been reaching toward Kryvyi Rih (though observing them over time, they seem more interested in merely reaching the administrative borders of Kherson Oblast, which Russia is trying to annex). 

Russian telegram accounts claim 10-15 Ukrainian tanks made a river crossing into Davydiv Brid, then pushed south down that highway to the village of Bruskynske, where fighting is ongoing. 

If those accounts are accurate, it’s not a particularly large attack—about the size of a Russian BTG (and we’ve spent all war mocking Russia’s under-resourced BTG-sized piecemeal attacks). Ukraine’s brand new tank brigade has 100 tanks, plus another 70 or so armored personnel carriers, so there’s a lot more combat power somewhere. This might be a small blocking action, designed to merely cut off supply lines to Russian forces to the north. But, if we can dream, Nova Kahkovka would be an even juicer target than Kherson itself. 

Nova Kahkovka is the source of water for all of Crimea, posing a major problem for Russia if it were cut off again (like it was pre-war). Just threatening the town should require Russia reinforce it, “fixing” Russian troops desperately needed for Kherson’s defense and the offensives out east. Ukraine’s control of Crimea’s water supply would be a massive bargaining chip in any future negotiations. And depending on whether bridges survived any action, Ukraine would have a western approach to Melitopol—the logistical hub for supplies coming from Crimea to Russian forces in southeastern Ukraine. It would be bye-bye “land bridge,” connecting Crimea to mainland Russia.

This effort is analogous to Ukrainian counter-offensives around Kharkiv in the north, which have put pressure on Russia’s supply lines to the Izyum salient. As a result, Russia has been forced to peel away forces from Izyum to reinforce their logistical hubs and arrest further Ukrainian gains toward the Russian border. 

By all indications, the southern axis is Russia’s least-resourced. If Ukraine gets traction, Russia will need to divert critically needed units from the Donbas fight, and that, by itself, would be a major win. 

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