Ukraine Update: Russia’s best efforts manage only the slightest Donbas gains

Ukraine Update: Russia’s best efforts manage only the slightest Donbas gains

On vacation still, but checking in to provide an update on the on-the-ground tactical situation in Ukraine. I’ll start at Izyum, and work my way around the front in clockwise direction.

Izyum direction: No one is officially calling it yet, but it’s increasingly clear that Ukraine has retaken Dovhen’ke as Russia’s Izyum holdings recede. Regular readers of these updates know about my particular obsession with this town, and for those of you who don’t, click that link to read more about Ukraine’s heroic defense of the tiny village before it fell on June 11. 

Presidential advisor Aleksey Arestovych said on his August 8 podcast that “According to some reports, the Ukrainians have liberated Dovhen’ke. The Ukrainians are advancing on Izyum.” On August 9, he said that “[Dovhen’ke] is already behind us, according to some reports. We moved them. If you look strictly south of Izyum, then all this is […] was for the enemy until recently. And now it’s not for the enemy anymore. It’s shrinking rapidly. They are moving to Izyum.” 

OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) analyst Def Mon on Twitter noted Russian shelling of Dovhen’ke as early as August 6, which suggested Ukrainian troops where in the town or nearly in it. Russia doesn’t generally shell its own positions. We have recent video of Russian losses north of Dovhen’ke, but that doesn’t necessarily prove Ukraine has liberated it. There’s even been some Telegram posts claiming residents of Izyum can hear fighting approaching it. 

Despite all of that, Ukraine General Staff hasn’t confirmed anything, and we haven’t seen any pictures or video to suggest Ukraine has retaken that pile of rubble in what is one of the most battle-scarred regions of Ukraine. It looks like this: 

Dovhen’ke, June 6. Look at that crater on the western edge! Fertilizer storage was hit.

And this moonscape:

The road leading into Dovhen’ke, June 6

Sivers’k direction: Russia has made slight gains.

To be able to attack Vyimka and Vesele they kind of need control of the area behind them. There has not really been any mentions of attacks on Spirne, Berestove and Bilohorivka the last few days. I believe RuAF has gained control over one or more of these. Marking as orange.

— Def Mon (@DefMon3) August 12, 2022

We have to crack the code of Ukrainian General Staff reports. They won’t announce the loss of territory, but you can infer it from Russia’s attacking locations. That orange terrain in Def Mon’s map? It’s just 3 kilometers. Ukraine apparently abandoned defenses shredded by Russian artillery and set up shop on the next line. There is always a next line of defenses, hence Russia’s painfully slow advances. 

Bakhmut direction: Def Mon gives us good maps.

Bakhmut. The AFU stopped RuAF attacks on Bakhmut and Vesela Dolyna. RuAF had partial success attacking in the Zaitseve area. Gains marked on map is a guess. Fighting continues in the Kodema area. pic.twitter.com/mIohhP7Z58

— Def Mon (@DefMon3) August 12, 2022

 Bakhmut is the middle prong of a long Ukrainian defensive line, with Toretsk in the south, outside of Donetsk city, and Sivers’k at the northeast end. 

The eastern Donbas front: Toretsk-Bakhmut-Sivers’k

Note that none of these three cities serve any particular strategic purpose. None of them matter much in the outcome of the war. Bakhmut would’ve been helpful to cut off supply lines to Lysychansk, but that proved unecessary. The only factor that matters here is the number of casualties each side suffers in what is nearly exclusively an artillery duel. The cities and towns and hamlets themselves? They are either rubble, or will soon be rubble. If Ukraine can surrender territory without suffering excessive losses, Russia gets no closer to ultimate victory.

Yet after failing to surround Ukrainian defenders in the region (which is what Russia’s Izyum approach attempted, and what Ukrainian defenses at Dovhen’ke and Bohorodychne halted), Russia has no choice but to bash their heads directly against hardened Ukrainian defenses, with gains measured in the tens of meters per day. Why? Who knows! Maybe simply to give Vladimir Putin rosy “we’re advancing!” reports. Pro-Russian Twitter and Telegram sure as heck get excited over these meager gains. 

So back to Bakhmut, Russian forces reached the very edge of town. As a result, pro-Russia propagandist Geroman on Twitter announced on August 7 that “#Russia Advances Into #Bakhmut, Lynchpin of #Ukraine Defence” and on August 11 that “#Russia Tightens Grip on #Bakhmut, #Ukraine Ponders Withdrawal from #Siversk.” It’s all ridiculous, of course. First of all, this whole “Lyncpin of Ukrainian defense” stuff is laughable for reasons I mentioned above, and Russia hasn’t even reached the town of Sivers’k, why would Ukraine abandon it? But aside from that nonsense, there is zero evidence that Russian forces have even entered Bakhmut’s industrial zone on its eastern border. We know very well how much Ukraine loves to defend industrial zones, and how good it is at it!

This is Bakhmut. I believe this industrial area where most of the RuAF focus is directed. I do not believe RuAF has been able to enter it. The satellite image indicates a lot of shelling along the E40 road, i would think this is a defensive line for the AFU. pic.twitter.com/uicQrChMdK

— Def Mon (@DefMon3) August 12, 2022

Russia has made marginal gains along some of the other approaches into Bakhmut, but none imminently threaten the town itself, and as always, Russia spreads out its combat power over multiple advances because of its inability to wage combined-arms operations with more than 1-2 BTGs at a time.

It’s been a while since we’ve discussed Russia’s inability to mass attacks, and it’s because they adopted, so some success, their “flatten everything with artillery then send some troops for ‘reconnaissance by fire’ to see if any defenses are left standing.” You don’t need to “combine” any “arms” to make that work. But as Russia pushes beyond its supply depots (with HIMARS compounding the problem), and its artillery becomes more exposed to Ukraine’s counter-battery fire, things are reverting to what we saw earlier in the war. And just like then, Russia’s inability to mass firepower into fewer lines of attack means they spread their combat power thin, helping defenses hold. 

Donetsk direction: Def Mon again: 

Pisky, Mar’inka and Spartak has seen heavy battles lately, the RU advance in Pisky the last week or so is about 1500 meters. The Russian attacks in this area today were stopped by The AFU, defender of mankind, protector of Europe, destroyer of evil. pic.twitter.com/0SCgXyOYzb

— Def Mon (@DefMon3) August 12, 2022

Pisky is Russia’s biggest success story this week, if by “success story” we mean “strategically irrelevant halting advance at the cost of mass casualties.” Russia has been using its thermobaric MLRS to try and clear Ukrainian defensive positions. That also clears out anything else in the area. 

Russian TOS-1A thermobaric MLRS strikes reportedly on Pisky. https://t.co/JwFMMoBXGo pic.twitter.com/Z1PFtNkURd

— Rob Lee (@RALee85) August 11, 2022

This has been geolocated to about midway into the town with a pre-war population of … 18. It had 2,000 residents prior to the 2014 war, but this has been a frontline battlefront for eight years, situated just outside of the Russian-occupied regional capital of Donetsk City. Russia will presumably take this pile of rubble at some point, given the iron it’s throwing at it. But … polite golf clap? Again, the strategic value of expending so many resources at it is practically nil. 

Kherson direction: Not gonna lie guys, I want to get back to vacation, so I’m going to leave you with this excellent and comprehensive update: 

1/10 #Kherson western front update 🧵is finally here.Been working on checking info from local,#OSINT,sat & other sources to produce the most complete picture IMO while still keeping #Opsec.Let’s go 🚀@DefMon3 @neonhandrail @GeoConfirmed @EngstrT @AndrewPerpetua#SlavaUkraïni

— NLwartracker (@NLwartracker) August 10, 2022

One of the themes of this Twitter thread is that Russia has abandoned several positions north of Kherson because of relentless Ukrainian artillery shelling. BUT … Ukrainian forces haven’t pushed forward, because of the equally relentless Russian artillery in this flat, open, and difficult-to-defend terrain. The conclusion is that not much is really happening: 

11/11 Overall we can see 🇺🇦 small gaines & some counter attacks by 🇷🇺.However the 🇺🇦 forces seem to wait till the 🇷🇺 re-supply situation gets worse and their buildup in the rear is complete before they will make a major push toward #Kherson city or not 😉.#SlavaUkraïni #OSINT

— NLwartracker (@NLwartracker) August 10, 2022

Russian offensive operations on this front, while limited, are bizarre given their growing resupply issues and Ukraine’s systemic targeting of bridges into the region. I’m still of the mind that Ukraine is setting a trap, and this won’t be the focus of their upcoming big offensive. My money is still on southern Donbas and Zaporizhzhia as Ukraine’s ultimate focus, to cut off Russia from its eastern supply lines. HIMARS can handle bridges to cut off resupply from Crimea in the south. With newly arrived American HARM anti-radar missiles degrading Russia’s air defenses, Ukraine’s Air Force can even make helicopter resupply risky for the invaders. 

I’m sure I’ve missed some movement around Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia, but the overall point remains—not much is changing. Russia is exhausting itself to gain hundresds of meters in eastern Donbas, Ukraine is “shaping the battlefield” around Kherson, for either a major offensive in the near future or setting a trap, and HIMARS and other mystery weapons continue degrading Russia’s supply lines, limiting the invader’s ability to both attack and defend. 

All the while, hundreds and thousands are maimed and killed for the sake of Putin’s grand delusions.

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