Ukraine update: Russia captures another large town, but how much should we worry?

Ukraine update: Russia captures another large town, but how much should we worry?

There are reports on Tuesday that Russian forces have occupied the town of Lyman after an extended period of heavy combat that saw the town attacked from three sides. Those on-the-ground reports appear to be confirmed by high-resolution satellite imagery and by the NASA FIRMS data which, after several days of rain in the area, cleared up over the last few days to show a pattern that seemed familiar from some other sites that have fallen. 

NASA FIRMS data showing change in targeting within Lyman.

At first, Russian forces shelled many areas of Lyman (the yellow blocks in the image). High-resolution satellite imagery from Monday showed fires all across the town. Then over the last day, targeting was more specific with a few clusters in the north and a particular focus on the city’s eastern tip. Finally, within the last 12 hours, the only area that has seen activity is down there with that partially hidden red block at the southeastern edge. Ground reports have Russian infantry now patrolling the city’s streets, and it seems likely that remaining Ukrainian forces have withdrawn across a bridge to the south.

In a larger context, Lyman is along the Siverskyi Donets River, one of a line of towns and cities east of Izyum and west of the holdout city of Severodonetsk. Like Popasna, which Russia finally took two weeks ago after over 60 days of constant assault, Lyman was long near the front lines with Russian-held territory, and the town was protected by an extensive network of trenches and earthworks. 

Its capture by Russia becomes part of a pattern of Ukrainian forces moving west and south to retreat behind the natural barrier of the river. 

Lyman has reportedly been captured by Russian forces. (Open image in another tab for a closer look.)

The loss of the town is not a huge blow to Ukraine. Locations like Lyman on the “Russian side” of the Donets have been among the most difficult to supply and maintain. Only a few such locations remain, chief among them the city of Severodonetsk. The pressure on these locations has been extreme, and Ukraine has shown a willingness to surrender locations like Lyman—after inflicting stiff losses on Russian forces—and withdraw to more easily defended locations on the other side of the river.

Considering the three-peat disaster that was Russia’s attempt to cross the river near Bilohorivka, forcing Russia to attempt more such crossings seems like a good strategy. South of the river, the biggest Ukrainian strongholds in the area at Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, and Lysychansk are currently unthreatened. Attempts to extend Russian control north from Popasna or south from Izyum have been slow, with the number of failed Russian advances having easily reached double digits.

So the loss of Lyman isn’t a signal of impending doom, or a sign that Ukraine is about to lose the whole eastern region. No matter how many pro-Russian social media accounts shout that this is a huge victory (and they are shouting), withdrawing from Lyman rather than risking a large loss of Ukrainian forces there makes sense. It was probably always part of Ukraine’s contingency plans.

Still … it is worrisome. It’s worrisome in part because at Lyman Russian forces seemed to coordinate assaults by multiple battalion tactical groups (BTGs) and take a relatively large town (pre-war population 20,000) in a matter of a few days rather than grinding through its streets in one failed assault after another as happened in locations like Popasna.

The reason that happened is almost certainly because Ukrainian troops withdrew rather than forcing Russia to disassemble Lyman brick by brick. Leaving behind Lyman was a strategic decision. But over the last two weeks, Russia has occupied nearly two dozen towns and villages located in or around that fold in the Siverskyi Donets River. Every day seems to bring a list of “Russia has occupied …” with no matching list of areas recaptured by Ukraine.

Every indication is that Russia is suffering severe losses in making these advances. Russia has been conducting a campaign that involves heavy use of artillery and an inch-by-inch advance across the rubble. Ukraine has been making sure that every inch is paid for in blood.

There are limits to both strategies. Russia is already advancing while deploying a level of forces much less than necessary to capture locations without taking a level of loss that seriously degrades their force. Ukraine can continue to give up territory, but not indefinitely. There are locations where surrender may threaten their ability to maintain the army in the field. For example, a significant advance out of Izyum to the south, or out of Popasna to the north or west, could cut through lines that both allow Ukraine to move forces around and to supply front-line positions.

Every one of the towns and villages that Russia has captured in eastern Ukraine has come at a cost. Only Ukraine knows if that cost has been high enough. Because they need to not only halt the advance of the Russian tide; when that army breaks, they need to be prepared to push it back.

And now, something you’ve been wanting to see for weeks.

#Ukraine: Ukrainian SSO (SOF) published rare footage of a kamikaze drone in action, which we identied as a US-supplied Switchblade 300 – hitting a Russian T-72B3 tank with its crew on top. The tank is unlikely to receive any serious damage, which cannot be said about the crew. pic.twitter.com/sRm5GQNRyL

— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) May 24, 2022

Contrast the performance of the Switchblade with this video from Russia of one of their drones carrying out a bombing mission.

Russia telegram channels proudly share footage of an Orlan-10 dropping 4 bombs and missing the target with all of them. pic.twitter.com/Am7pRP1aQW

— Kyle Glen (@KyleJGlen) May 24, 2022

This is just a symbolic milestone, but still it’s worth celebrating. As when comparing the casualty rates of soldiers wounded or killed in action, there are likely many more vehicles that have taken damage and been forced to retire from the field—temporarily or permanently—while Russia attempts repairs.

#UkraineWar: Russia is now visually confirmed to have lost more than 4000 vehicles and other pieces of heavy equipment since it began its invasion of Ukraine three months ago 🇷🇺 Full list: https://t.co/QR37xcY8mq pic.twitter.com/PZgCNzRvS5

— Oryx (@oryxspioenkop) May 24, 2022

Finally, something far better than even videos of Switchblade success: a compilation of Patron the mine-sniffing hero dog.

A bit of Patron in your feed Dog Patron since the beginning of a full-scale war of Russia against #Ukraine became the most famous dog. He has a state award and his own page on social networks. People write letters to him asking for a meeting and send gifts. pic.twitter.com/nklMCdKQMX

— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) May 24, 2022


Tuesday, May 24, 2022 · 3:25:14 PM +00:00

·
Mark Sumner

Whenever reading anything from Igor Girkin, it should be remembered that he was one of the architects of the 2014 invasion and is generally pissed off at Russia only because he expected to be handed the keys to Donetsk. That said, Girkin has been consistently critical of Russian actions during this invasion, and his posts have frequently relayed information otherwise not available from Western sources.

The real shocker in this message is that it indicates Ukraine is moving to leave Severodonetsk. Even though the city was surrounded on three sides and only a single route of supply / retreat remains, it had been assumed that Ukraine intended to put up an extended resistance there. Moving back from Severodonetsk would definitely give the impression of a significant Russian victory, even if it comes from a withdrawal rather than a defeat.

Igor Girkin updates on the frontline situation in Donbas, noting Ukraine withdrawing forces in certain areas, and ceasing reinforcement of existing positions to form a new line at Seversk – Bahmut. Source: https://t.co/bF7sYNn1Zn pic.twitter.com/X1HCaRgOvy

— Dmitri 🇺🇦 (@mdmitri91) May 24, 2022


Tuesday, May 24, 2022 · 5:20:09 PM +00:00

·
Mark Sumner

Ukraine Army hits Russian command post with NATO-standard 155mm howitzer Target was located more >20 km away; shot demonstrates high precision of weapons supplied to Ukraine by NATO 🎥https://t.co/rxCekvAMsL pic.twitter.com/rpQBqoB7ti

— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) May 24, 2022


Tuesday, May 24, 2022 · 6:07:35 PM +00:00

·
Mark Sumner

Changes on the front: 🔹🇷🇺 artillery used at Azovstal now redeployed to other fronts, more aircraft shelling infrastructure 🔹Battle for Sievierodonetsk continues, 🇷🇺tries to advance on Bakhmut, storms Lyman 🔹Ukrainian forces withdrew from Svitlodarsk &Myronivskyi 📷 @War_Mapper pic.twitter.com/BIP6H12SgN

— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) May 24, 2022


Tuesday, May 24, 2022 · 2:42:35 PM +00:00

·
Mark Sumner

Because writing any story that involves action at the front line is subject to change without notice, THIS has happened while I was writing this article.

Updated FIRMS image of Lyman

All those red blocks in this image are new as of 10 AM ET. That means in just the last thirty minutes more widespread shelling of Lyman has resumed. Does this mean that Russian forces ran into unexpected opposition as they moved into the city? Where Ukrainian forces so confident that civilians were out of the area (evacuations have been underway since the war began) that they turned around and began to shell Russian positions in Lyman?

There have also been reports of Russian jets over the area, which followed reports on Monday that Russia was making more use of aviation in bombing Lyman than had been used at other locations.

Expect updates.

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