Ukraine update: Let’s look at the Donbas front, the only place Russia has had some success

Ukraine update: Let’s look at the Donbas front, the only place Russia has had some success

Last update, we looked at Ukrainian moves in northwest Kyiv. I was going to focus next on the Kherson area, but still too much fog of war to get an accurate read. So instead, let’s head over to the eastern front, where Russia has had some success. 

One of four major axes of attack (the others being Kyiv/north, Kharkiv/Sumy/northeast, and Kherson/south), the Donbas front has been continuously at war for eight years. As such, Ukraine built a series of WWI-like trenches on the front lines. Despite repeated efforts, separatist Ukrainians and Russian support units have failed to dislodge those forces, where it’s estimated a third of the entire Ukrainian army is deployed. 

Ukrainian trenches in the Donbas region. (EP.1)

— World’s Military Forces (@Military9Army) January 26, 2022

I’ve marked the location of the fortifications on this map

Blue is pre-war Russia-propped separatist region. The red border is the administrative boundary of the Donbas region, which Russia would seek to keep in any cease-fire agreement.

As you can see, Russian and separatists troops have had no luck breaching that line, despite nearly non-stop shelling and attacks. Look at the FIRMS imagery from the region, which shows the location of fires of any kind, but helpful to see where combat is most fierce.

One of Russia’s goals from the very start of the war was to create a “pincer” maneuver that would trap those Ukrainian troops in their bunkers, cutting off their supply lines. So the plan was to loop around the top and bottom of those fortifications, and avoiding head-on confrontations. As of now, the status of that pincer effort is not going so well. Here we see a map showing approximate unit emplacements: 

The beige area is the pre-war separatist-held Donbas region. You can see Russian forces swarming above and below it. Directly to the south of this map is Mariupol. Russia clearly hopes that once they take the city, they can turn north and resume their effort to encircle those entrenched Ukrainians. 

Now look at that top-right-most green unit. Those troops are defending Severodonetsk, which is surrounded by Russian forces on three sides. The town is defended by entrenched positions in the south and east, and by a river to the north. This video shows the city burning on those three sides. Russia is trying to shell it into submission, but it holds on. 

Even more important is Izyum, just west of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine seems to be chewing up Russian convoys with regularity, here, here, here, and this: 

Around Kharkiv and Izyum, the Ukrainians mauled Russia’s 252nd Motorized Rifle Regiment – it lost up to 30 percent of personnel, weapons and military equipment. Colonel Igor Nikolaev, commander of Russia’s 3rd Motorized Infantry Division was killed.

— Michael MacKay (@mhmck) March 17, 2022

Izyum is strategically critically important, not just for the defense of the Donbas line, but also for the defense of Kharkiv. 

The current battle for the city of Izyum is critical. If Russia gains control of the city, it will cut Ukrainian supply lines & control the key artery between Kharkiv in the north & the whole Donbas front in the east, helping it encircle Ukrainian forces in both areas.

— Ukraine Reporter (@StateOfUkraine) March 14, 2022

A smarter Russia might’ve focused all of its combat power in isolating this major part of the Ukrainian army, hitting Mariupol hard in the early days, then using its port facilities to help bring in military forces for a northward push. A second prong around Kharkiv would’ve powered the northern half of the pincer maneuver. Do that quickly, and suddenly you have knocked out a third of Ukraine’s combat power, taken a big bite of territory, and maintained the fiction of Russian military competence. Instead, Russia diluted its forces along four major axes and over a dozen lines of attack, and has depended on these sad sacks to prop up the eastern front: 

They really just equipping their troops with Soviet era gear now huh

— Aetius (@AetiusRF) March 13, 2022

Soviet era? They wish! Some of them are getting WWII vintage equipment! 

The fact that they’re not even giving these dude 60 year old AKs or SKSs is so weird. WW2-era SSh helmets and WW2-era Mosin Nagants. So strange. You know Russia has millions of them too!!!

— Woofers (@NotWoofers) March 21, 2022

And just for fun, they’ve just conscripted every male in the separatist regions up to the age of 64. More cannon fodder for Vladimir Putin, as he tries to limit the pain felt by Mother Russia itself. 

Those trenches may be holding, but Russian and allied separatist forces have had some luck to the north and south of them, and while it’s hard to see how Russia might pull off that pincer maneuver (hundreds more kilometers of supply lines to hold and defend? right!), they’re at least gaining at the moment. For a war effort stalling or even being driven back in the other three axes, it gives Russia something to hang their hopes on.

Tuesday, Mar 22, 2022 · 12:26:57 AM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

Irpin, Ukraine burns in this Sentinel-2 imagery from 21 March 2022

— Aram Shabanian (@ShabanianAram) March 21, 2022

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