A Russian breakthrough in eastern Ukraine?

A Russian breakthrough in eastern Ukraine?
AP Photo/Pavel Dorogoy

Looks like Putin is finally about to put some points on the board. Although we need to keep the magnitude of his victory here in perspective. Let’s start with this map:

After Russian troops withdrew from Kiev and redeployed to the east, Moscow scaled back its initial ambitions from seizing the entire country to seizing half of it. Their hope was that Russian forces around Kharkiv would subdue that city and then move south towards Dnipro. Meanwhile, they wanted Russian troops in southern cities like Kherson and Melitopol to move north towards Zaporizhia and ultimately to link up with the northern force in Dnipro. That would have cut off Ukraine’s troops in the Donbas from the rest of the country and put them at dire risk of being starved out and destroyed.

Russia gave up on that plan. They couldn’t advance past Kharkiv. In fact, within the past 10 days, Ukraine has pushed Russian forces around the city back towards the Russian border.

Plan B is to orchestrate some lesser encirclement of the Ukrainians. If they can’t cut Ukraine in half, can they at least take a bite out of some smaller part of the Donbas? Their next pincer movement, I assume, is to try to link up in Sloviansk, although that city too remains out of reach for the moment. So they’ve shifted to Plan C, an even smaller pincer movement aimed at cutting off the Ukrainians defending the city of Sievierodonetsk in the northeast. Here’s the scale of what we’re talking about:

If that black dot can advance to the northwest, Sievierodonetsk and the pocket held by Ukrainian troops to the city’s south would be cut off. Russia seems to be making progress on that goal, as the name “Popasna” is on the lips of experts observing the war today:

Here’s another map of the key battlefield to give you a better sense of what’s happening:

I recommend enlarging the second map here so that you can see the town names in greater detail. Russia has reportedly finally pushed through the town of Popasna and begun moving west towards Soledar. If they can capture that town, they might be able to cut Ukraine’s supply lines to the area. That would leave Sievierodonetsk’s defenders in peril and the city at risk of falling. Reporter Tom Mutch is on the ground:

Another reporter is nearby:

The fighting around Soledar is allegedly ferocious given the town’s strategic importance to Sievierodonetsk. “In Donbas, the occupiers are trying to increase pressure. There’s hell, and that’s not an exaggeration,” Zelensky said last night of the battles in the area. Sievierodonetsk is one of the few areas in Luhansk still under Ukrainian control but it now has Russian forces on three sides of it and may soon be completely surrounded. If Putin successfully captures it, will he declare victory and sue for peace?

And if he does, will the Ukrainians tell him to get bent?

“I don’t know any borders except the borders of 1991,” [Ukrainian military intelligence chief] Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov said, referring to the year of Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union. “Who can force Ukraine to freeze the conflict? This is a war of all Ukrainians, and if someone in the world thinks that they can dictate to Ukraine the conditions under which it can or cannot defend itself, then they are seriously mistaken.”…

Russia has made slow but steady gains in Donbas in recent days, particularly near the town of Popasna in the Luhansk region. “Somewhere they will succeed and somewhere they will fail, but it doesn’t matter at all because Russia will lose in the end and Ukraine will recover all its temporarily lost territories. It will do so by force, exclusively by force, because no other way exists,” he said.

They might be able to take Soledar and Sievierodonetsk. Whether they can hold them is a separate matter. Some are skeptical:

It’s not a great sign for Russian endurance that yesterday the Russian parliament passed a law raising the age limit for men to enlist in the military. Previously that was capped at 40. Now they’re willing to go above 40 for certain military tasks. Supposedly middle-aged enlistees will be tasked with operating equipment and precision weapons, not trained as infantry, but if the Ukrainian plan to gradually attrit Russian forces this summer succeeds, no one will be surprised to find paunchy, balding fortysomethings being handed a rifle and sent to the front line this fall with orders to their best. Exit question: How desperate for a job do you have to be in Russia to sign up for this meat grinder when you’re in your early 40s?

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