Russia’s capture of the cities of Severodonetsk and Lyschansk, a major victory for Moscow’s campaign to invade eastern Ukraine, demonstrates the success of the Russian army’s grinding strategy based on superior firepower and gradual advances.
It also raises serious questions about how long either side can go on like this, especially the battered and heavily armed Ukrainian forces, who have been forced to rely on raw recruits and suffer heavy losses, coupled with the mental stress of fighting, retreating and bombing continuous Russian.
The Russian invasion inflicted heavy losses on its troops as well, but they continue their slow advance, and with the capture of Lysychansk this weekend they had taken control of the entire Luhansk province, putting them in a position to advance towards the Ukrainian. Portable cities of Donetsk province.
The destructive strategy, which relies heavily on long-range artillery, suits the flat terrain and shorter Russian supply lines in the east, but may not work elsewhere. It remains unclear how much President Vladimir Putin intends to press the offensive, or how much his army can absorb more losses in men and materiel without the need for a long pause to rebuild.
Ukrainian officials say their goal is to inflict maximum pain on the Russians by forcing them to fight for cities, as happened in Sievierodonetsk and to a lesser extent in Lysychansk, but both cities fell, and now there is growing doubt about this approach. This strategy also divides the Ukrainian forces, as some believe that trying to seize the cities is futile.
“For me, human life is more important than the name Lyschansk,” said Lieutenant Colonel Yuri Beriza, 52, a battalion commander in the Ukrainian National Guard, days before the Ukrainians decided to abandon the city rather than fight in a bloody mass, as they did in neighboring Sievierodonetsk.
Volodymyr, a volunteer soldier who was one of the last of his unit to withdraw from Severodonetsk in June, said he lost more than half of his division of about 100 soldiers during the battle. Summarize the battle with an expletive.
“Any support?” Asked. “There was no support.”
However, he nodded at the Ukrainian T-80 across the street, saying that tank units had come to the aid of the soldiers when artillery support had not advanced.
Early in the war, Russian troops attempted to quickly capture the capital, Kyiv, overextending their forces and armored columns, leaving them with little support, and suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of the Ukrainians. Then Moscow shifted its focus to the mineral-rich Donbass industrial region in the east – Luhansk and Donetsk – and changed its strategy.
A better understanding of the Russo-Ukrainian war
Now, Russian forces rarely advance without a massive amount of support, often in the form of heavy artillery — even if it means what Moscow captures is in ruins. Ukrainian soldiers say the bombing lasted about five days before Russian forces began testing Ukrainian lines with foot soldiers and tanks.
Clearly, the fighting exhausted both sides. Ukrainian officials estimated that their forces were incurring hundreds of casualties daily; Western intelligence places the dead and wounded Russians on a similar level.
Ukrainian forces are increasingly relying on less-trained forces such as those in the Regional Defense Forces and the National Guard to supplement exhausted units on the front lines. Russia turned to reinforcements such as Wagner paramilitary units, pro-Moscow Chechen forces, and separatist fighters from Luhansk and Donetsk to reinforce their battered units.
On Monday, Putin ordered the forces involved in the capture of Lyschansk and Severodonetsk to rest and “increase their combat capabilities” while other Russian formations continue to fight.
Both sides have played down reports of faltering morale in their ranks, at times posting motivational videos on social media to counter the notion that anyone in the trenches is exhausted. Even as the loss of life is taking place, Ukrainian forces are showing a willingness to continue fighting, no matter the cost.
“We’ll be back,” said Volodymyr, after withdrawing from Severodonetsk. “This is our land. This is how it is.”
But this method of fighting – artillery warfare – can produce severe psychological trauma, as happened in the First World War, the conflict that gave rise to the term “shell shock”. Ukrainian commanders, especially replacement units, are concerned that some of their soldiers are under stress, as well as at risk of being injured or killed by enemy fire.
“During the artillery bombardment, all you can do is lie in the shelter and wait for the bombardment to end,” said Volodymyr, a Ukrainian platoon commander who recently left the front in the Donbass. Some people suffer psychological damage from this bombing. He found that they were psychologically unprepared for whatever they encountered.”
Volodymyr, who refused to reveal his surname for security reasons, said that one person was killed in his platoon and two had to leave the front due to psychological trauma.
More than four months into the war, Ukrainians are still angry and defiant. But among civilians – millions of them are displaced, out of work and living in fear, some without adequate food, water and electricity – the mood is growing grim. As Russians gain ground and losses mount, with no end in sight, some Ukrainians accuse their government of playing down the challenges ahead in an effort to raise morale.
Yulia Fedotovsky, 32, a public relations manager in Kyiv, said that earlier in the war, passing on photos on social media of dead Russian soldiers helped her feel safe. Now, she says, she’s just trying to avoid the news.
“I realized and accepted that I could die at any moment, and so I’m just living my life,” she said.
In an early sign of possible violence, Russian forces have intensified their bombing of population centers near the front lines in recent days.
At least six people were killed in Sloviansk on Sunday, and more than a dozen were injured with Russian missilesUkrainian authorities said. In a Facebook post, Vadim Lyakh, the mayor of Sloviansk, said this was the heaviest bombing of the city since the Russian invasion began on February 24. On Monday, the head of the regional military administration, Pavlo Kirilenko, said in a post on Telegram that the messaging app said Russian forces had killed nine civilians in Donetsk province in the past 24 hours.
In his nightly video address, President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that the Russians “have now accumulated their greatest firepower in the Donbass, and can use tens of thousands of artillery shells every day on one part of the front.”
But he vowed again to restore the lost lands. “We will return thanks to our tactics thanks to the increased supply of modern weapons,” he said.
In the south, near the Russian-controlled port city of Kherson, Ukrainian forces have made a series of small gains over the past month. And although military analysts say these mounting victories are a sign of a broader counteroffensive to come, Ukrainian military officers have downplayed the fighting and acknowledged that the focus is on the east.
Kyiv has repeatedly called for more weapons and ammunition to be supplied by the West. And while some have come to the fore and proven successful in combat, notably the recently arrived HIMARS Multiple Launch Rocket System from the United States, any long-range Ukrainian success on the battlefield will require much more.
“There is a problem with the ammunition,” Colonel Breza said. “For example, for one shot, they will fire 50 rounds. How do you fight this?”
But he said the situation had improved somewhat, and that “we are waiting for help from the West with artillery and machinery.”
The lack of ammunition in the Ukrainian army, especially for long-range artillery pieces from the Soviet era, caused its forces to switch between those newer Western-supplied weapons and equipment that required extensive training. The United States and its allies provide this training outside Ukraine, but the pace does not meet the demand, and some of those who have been trained have been killed or injured.
A Ukrainian officer working with US-supplied M777 howitzers said that several officers and howitzers trained in Latvia were killed or wounded during the fighting.
“The enemy artillery worked 24/7, and our artillery could do something three or four times a day,” said Olena, a military medic who declined to reveal her last name for security reasons. And then it can miss the target. There were problems correcting the fire.”
For both sides, air support was often a minor part of the fighting in the Donbass, or even absent. Both Russia and Ukraine have large air defenses in the east, which means most planes and helicopters must fly at dangerously low altitudes to provide little support for ground forces. This has left Russian forces firing cruise missiles to target key infrastructure behind the front lines.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said, in recent days, that its forces carried out more than 12 air missions in southern and eastern Ukraine, and destroyed some Russian equipment. Last week, a Ukrainian Su-24 ground attack aircraft was seen flying at a treetop level towards Lysechhansk, a rarity in the Donbass.
Contribute to reporting Richard Perez Peña And the Alexandra E Petri from New York; Valerie HopkinsAnd the Maria Varnikova And the Camilla Hrabchuk from Kyiv; Matthew Mbok Big from London and Natalia throws you From Lviv, Ukraine.