I hope they gained more strategically than they lost by staying there and fighting as long as they did. The outcome seemed assured a week ago. There was no reason to keep bleeding for Sievierodonetsk unless some greater objective was being accomplished by doing so, either making the Russians bleed too or bogging down their army so that they couldn’t advance on other fronts. That’s what the holdouts at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol accomplished by fighting on for so many weeks with no hope of victory. Russian forces couldn’t turn their full attention to the north because the resistance in Mariupol simply wouldn’t be extinguished.
Serhiy Haidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region, on Wednesday said Ukrainian forces had partly retreated from the provincial capital amid heavy shelling and fierce street battles.
“This is not a betrayal,” he wrote in a post on Telegram, but part of a retreat “to more advantageous, pre-prepared positions” while awaiting “western weapons and preparing for de-occupation”…
Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a US think-tank, called the decision to retreat “strategically sound, however painful”.
They said “Ukraine must husband its more limited resources and focus on regaining critical terrain”, such as by “continuing successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kherson”, a Russian-occupied city in the south of the country.
Some Ukrainian units have retreated across the river to Sievierodonetsk’s sister city of Lysychansk, which occupies higher ground and should be more defensible. And as noted, Ukraine is taking advantage of Russia’s focus on the Donbas to push into Kherson province in the south, making incremental gains against the Russians there. “Kherson is critical terrain because it is the only area of Ukraine in which Russian forces hold ground on the west bank of the Dnipro River,” the ISW notes. “If Russia is able to retain a strong lodgment in Kherson when fighting stops it will be in a very strong position from which to launch a future invasion. If Ukraine regains Kherson, on the other hand, Ukraine will be in a much stronger position to defend itself against future Russian attack.”
The fighting in Sievierodonetsk has been sufficiently rough that western analysts believe the Russian army will need an “operational pause” to resupply and reconstitute their units before pushing west towards Sloviansk. Western officials continue to insist that Russian forces are suffering from low morale but I imagine that taking Sievierodonetsk and going on offense will help with that.
“The morale of the Ukrainian forces is extremely high, and even though they’re coming under some significant pressure, their performance on the battlefield remains potent,” said one. “Even when they’re faced at times with sometimes overwhelming odds locally, they still continue to fight in a pretty ferocious and determined way…
“What’s really interesting is that we’re seeing disillusionment with the nature of the campaign not just amongst [Russian] junior soldiers, but we’re seeing reflections amongst senior officers, that they’re disillusioned with the campaign as well. This isn’t outbreaks of low morale amongst junior, young, inexperienced soldiers, but that feeling is happening with groups across the Russian military.”
Yeah, again, I don’t know. There *is* evidence of low morale in some quarters; just this afternoon the WSJ published an analysis of Russian documents showing that hundreds of troops have refused to deploy to Ukraine. But the noisiest faction inside Russia in favor of ramping up the suffering of the Ukrainians seems to be Russian military veterans. Granted, it’s one thing to cheerlead the war from the safety of Moscow and another to do it from the front lines, but it’s hard to believe Russian troops are less inclined to fight after chasing the Ukrainians out of the Donbas’s biggest city than they were a month ago — unless they took extremely heavy casualties in the battle for Sievierodonetsk, that is. But since the war in the east is largely a long-range artillery war and the Russians momentarily have superior artillery, how likely is it that they’re dying at a higher clip than the Ukrainians?
Moscow is clearly worried about maintaining its artillery advantage now that the U.S. is sending longer-range rocket systems to Ukraine. “We believe that the United States is purposefully and diligently adding fuel to the fire,” said Putin’s spokesman to reporters today. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, blamed Zelensky and called the shipments “a direct provocation (by Ukraine), aimed at involving the West in military action.” Not coincidentally, as the war escalates and begins to turn in Russia’s favor, there are rumblings in western publications that now might be a good time to start thinking about an accommodation. Andrew Exum writes today that western support for Ukraine is destined to decline as the war wears on and inflation continues to climb. At a certain point, figures like Macron and Scholz will pivot to domestic concerns to hold off populist discontent. So how about a truce sooner rater than later?
Ross Barkan goes darker, arguing that a deal to cede the Donbas to Russia in exchange for peace is worth doing before this war spirals:
Kissinger is one of a vanishing number of men who worked in American government when nuclear war was a much-discussed existential threat to be averted at all costs. Russia is an enormous country that is going to play a role in global affairs for the rest of this century, just as it did in the past one. This fact cannot be hand-waved away, nor can the reality that Russia has stockpiled more nuclear weapons than any other nation in the world. Putin’s Russia is more unsettling than the Soviet Union because it is far weaker and dominated by fewer men; it simply has less to lose. As in the defeated Germany after the First World War, grievance culture might take hold, this time in a nation with enough nuclear warheads pointed outward to annihilate every large city on Earth. Russian military doctrine envisions using tactical nuclear weapons defensively to turn the tide in a losing war. The total rout of Russia that Ukraine wishes for could return the U.S. and the rest of the West to the darkest hours of the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago.
Call that the “Let the Wookiee win” view of foreign policy. We must make sure that a powerful animal gets what it wants lest it wreak terrible havoc in the wake of its humiliation.
Realistically, I think Ukraine has until the end of the year before the west pulls the plug. Maybe less, as I doubt Republicans will be in the mood to approve a new aid package shortly before the November midterms if one’s needed.
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