It's rough going for Ukraine in the fight for the Donbas

AP Photo/Andrew Marienko

This must be the best week of the war for Russia so far.

I mean, all the others have been bad ones. If only by process of elimination, this is the high-water mark.

I wrote a few days ago about the Russian mini-breakthrough in the town of Popasna in Luhansk. That advance to the west has created an opportunity for the Russian army to seal off a pocket of territory in the northeastern Donbas, encircling the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. (See this map if you’re having trouble envisioning it.) They’re too worn down to do it quickly, it seems, but the Ukrainians are also worn down and struggling to hold back the Russian advance.

And so, on the one hand, we shouldn’t exaggerate what Russia has achieved lately:

On the other hand, anecdotal reports from the battlefield today aren’t great:

Zelensky recently claimed that Ukraine is losing 50-100 men per day to the fight in the east, a high casualty rate. Experts who are watching the war closely remain bullish on Ukraine’s chances but their tone has grown more cautious, shall we say, about near-term prospects in the Donbas.

The chances of the Russian military breaking and disintegrating under Ukrainian pressure appear to be receding, Kofman argues. And because both sides are focused on the area around Sievierodonetsk, their forces in other parts of the country are getting a breather and an opportunity to shore up their defenses. That’s going to make it harder for any eventual Ukrainian offensive in the south to try to back cities like Kherson.

Russian logistics seem to be improving too now that they’re not overextended around Kiev and Kharkiv:

Still, Phillips O’Brien is keeping things in perspective. The advance on Popasna and battle around Sievierodonetsk aren’t strategically significant, he claims. Their most lasting impact on the war is likely to be the price in blood paid by each side. In what sort of condition will the two armies be to continue the fight after the battle in the northeast shakes out?

The Ukrainians appear to share O’Brien’s view. They may lose Sievierodonetsk but they’re going to take a bite out of Russia’s remaining manpower in doing it:

Russia is paying a steep price for the gains it has made. The Kremlin is sending units from southern Ukraine to fight in Donbas, according to Ukrainian officials, and losing so many men that continued Ukrainian resistance could eventually force it to shift strategies again.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday morning that nine attacks had been repelled in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which together form Donbas. Dozens of Russian vehicles were destroyed, the ministry said, including three tanks.

Mr. Haidai said that holding Severodonetsk would be crucial for Ukraine’s efforts to stop any further Russian advances, adding that the heavy casualties would eventually force Moscow to ease the assault.

“They are no more bulletproof than anyone else,” he said of the Russian soldiers. “If they do not succeed during this week—by Saturday, Sunday —they will get tired, and the situation will at least stabilize for us.”

Hopefully. Nathan Ruser has been studying maps of the terrain around Popasna and believes Russia has an advantage there, as they control the high ground. The Ukrainians won’t be able to ambush their forces as easily as they did in the suburbs of Kiev. Even so, it’s unclear if the Russians can sustain their momentum at this point…

…especially when morale isn’t great:

“DPR” stands for Donetsk People’s Republic, which is Russia’s nomenclature for one of the two Ukrainian regions in the Donbas that’s been contested since 2014. Evidently the Russian separatists there aren’t enthused about heading north to fight for the “LPR,” or Luhansk People’s Republic, knowing how ferocious the battle in Luhansk is right now. Sounds to me like they’re taking the idea seriously that Donetsk is its own autonomous region rather than a Russian cut-out that’s destined to ultimately be absorbed by Moscow. Which is absurd. Haven’t these guys gotten their new Russian passports yet?