I had this image in my head last night and I was ready to invent it and write about it this morning, but it turned out that someone from Reddit caught me a few weeks ago:
Now the mayor predicts that the smallest encirclement will not be the goal announced by Russia until June this year, but only because he underestimated Russia’s incompetence. It turned out that now, mid-May, it was sooner.
Russia’s original stated goals are reflected in the arrows from March 2022 – coming down from the north, through Kyiv, and also from the south, from Kherson, Nikolaev and Krivoy Rog. We wrote at length about how unhealthy this plan was, especially since Russia also divided its small invading forces (~ 180,000, of which approximately 25,000 were actual combat troops) along three other axes – around Kherson in the northeast, eastern Donbass front and Mariupol to the southeast. The only way this could work was if Russian intelligence was correct and half of the Ukrainian army had been transferred to the Russian side, while more city authorities had surrendered their cities, which happened only in Kherson.
Until April, we were on the new plan, which assumed that it would focus 100% on the eastern front of Donbass. Russia had learned from its mistakes and would now focus its efforts on one axis! After weeks of heavy fighting, they captured Izyum and were thus supposedly prepared to head south for a wide encirclement. This was important because about a third of the Ukrainian army is on a line of defensive trenches, which Russia has in most cases failed to break through.
The idea, of course, was not just for Russia to cut off supplies to these Ukrainian defenders, but then to be able to strike them from behind. As you can imagine, most of these defenses point east. They are not usually designed to defend against someone who sneaks up to your weaker defenses. In addition, you can see that the path of the attack will conquer the administrative borders of the Donbass region (the dotted red line), which consists of Lugansk and Donetsk regions.
However, this plan has always had a fatal flaw:
Russia is bad at logistics, so the idea of being able to manage an environment of 300+ kilometers (~ 200 miles) was obviously ridiculous. In addition, this entire line will be vulnerable to flank attacks from the other two-thirds of the Ukrainian army outside this “cauldron.” Of course, spread your forces so far, Russia! Ukraine will be able to break through every part of it with concentrated force.
However, the southern half of this pinch never moves. Russia was too focused on massacring the remains of Mariupol Azov in the Azovstal Fortress / Steel Factory. It still is. And like everything else throughout this war, Russia has squandered parts around Kherson where it is still trying to push towards Nikolaev and Krivoy Rog, although they have nothing to do with Donbass. (He has his own dream of a “land bridge” to reach the Transnistrian region of Moldova via Odessa, but they could always turn to this later in the war, instead of continuing to dilute inefficiently.)
Remember that weird push west of the raisin bulge? This was precisely aimed at the wider environment. But like everything else Russia has tried in this war, this effort has stopped. And so they began to push in an even narrower circle, this time to Slavyansk and Kramatorsk.
And yet nothing has moved and it hasn’t for weeks. It is the same with the southern end of this pinch, around the separatist-controlled Horlovka. And as with all other plans, this was doomed to failure for one main reason – there was no way for Russia to deal with Slavyansk (pre-war population 111,000) and Kramatorsk (157,000 inhabitants) in a timely manner. Both are much better fortified than Mariupol and there was more time to supply its defenders with provisions. In addition, they are not as isolated as Mariupol, which gives Ukrainian forces ample opportunity to break through any siege.
Besides, we already know Russia very wellUrban Warfare Strategy: Systematically level the city block by block, then march into the ruins, claiming the ruins of Mighty Russia. And yet this strategy is бавнооооand any artillery aimed at Slavyansk and Kramatorsk will be within the reach of the Ukrainian artillery on both its western flank and its eastern flank.
This new “Slavic protrusion” would be even more exposed than the Izyum one, which has been under severe stress for weeks. But in the end, that strategy was doomed Ukraine liberates the territory around Kharkiv, which put the main railway supply line to Russia in Ukraine within the reach of Ukrainian artillery. The raisin bulge was already stuck in the mud. The disruption of its main supply line from Russia is its death knell.
But then something funny happened – Russia has finally started moving! And this happened in two random places, Rubezhne and Popasna:
It took months of systematic destruction, but Russia finally controlled their ruins. By closing the circle around these two cities, Russia will essentially control the entire Luhansk region, which allows it to pipe some something like a victory.
Now, if you look closely at the image, you will see the Donets River and how important it was for the defense of the area. Ukraine is left with only two major cities on the north coast – Severodonetsk and Liman, both under fierce attack as I write this. Remember that Russia has lost an appalling amount of personnel and equipment just to get to the river, and he’s not even done with it. Crossing it will be a challenge. Russia has tried twice in the last few days and lost two battalion tactical groups in the process.
Given the importance of the river, Ukraine can even afford to withdraw from Severodonetsk to Lisichansk on the other side of the river. I do not understand why Ukraine is holding it so fiercely, whether out of pride or some broader tactical goal. Maybe it’s as simple as taking advantage of prepared defensive positions to chew on more Russians before they evacuate.
But this southern prong, from Popasna, is more disturbing as it surrounds Donets. Although even there all attempts at progress have been halted in recent days. The Reddit meme does a good job of visualizing Russia’s shrinking ambitions, and here’s another way to do it:
More than 5,000 square miles of Donbass territory are still in Ukrainian hands. Despite widespread attacks across the front, Russia has succeeded only in this small northeast corner. Yet this movement is precisely the reason why Russia seems likely to abandon this protrusion of raisins, moving much of the fighting power that has accumulated there to the east, where there may be some opportunities to squeeze its advantage without depends on the endangered supply lines near Kharkov.
And yet, what will happen if Russia occupies this corner of territory? What then? They still have to cross layers of Ukrainian defensive positions to face Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. As always, there is no scenario in which Russia has the manpower, equipment and logistics juice to seriously challenge these cities while Ukraine gets strongerpreparation of their reserves and NATO equipment.
Russia’s slow progress now ensures that this war will continue until the end of this year (and probably longer), giving Ukraine time for a full transition to NATO’s standard weapons. In fact, the General Staff of Ukraine claims that they can be completely relocated by the end of the summer. This may be of little consolation to those who would prefer peace to break out, global food supplies to be restored, unnecessary deaths and money spent on more fruitful weapons endeavors to end. But Vladimir Putin cannot step down now without securing the glorious (and easy) victory he promised his nation, and Ukraine sees no reason to give up, given Russia’s deplorable performance on the battlefield. She really believes (and I agree) that with the right equipment she can restore everything lost by Russia since 2014, including the entire Donbass and Crimea. And while the Ukrainian people are ready to make that sacrifice (and they look like it), it makes perfect sense for the West to help them achieve their goals.