A resurgent Russian army has refocused its hitherto lumbering efforts to claim Ukraine’s east, making its first significant advances there in the 13th week of the war.
Russian forces have re-launched offensives at three main points to surround a spearhead of Ukrainian defenders, at Izyum to the north, Severodonetsk to the east, and Popasna to the south.
At Popasna, combined forces of Russian conscripts and mercenaries from the Wagner group broke through Ukrainian defences, taking several settlements on May 20. Three days later, they captured Myronovsky, the starting point of a highway leading to Sloviansk, where all three prongs of the Russian attack are likely aiming to converge.
On the northern front, Russian artillery at Izyum sprang to life at the same time, in what Ukrainian authorities described as the opening act to a full assault.
Russian forces appear to be attempting a pincer movement from Izyum and Popasna to isolate Ukraine’s entire tactical army of about 50,000 men in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions to the east.
On May 21, the battle for Severodonetsk, the easternmost Ukrainian-held city, began in earnest. To the city’s east, a punishing bombardment began. To its west, Russian military bloggers said Russian forces destroyed one of two bridges connecting the city to Lysychansk across the Siversky Donetsk river and complicating Ukrainian lines of supply.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia’s bombardment was turning the Donbas into “hell”.
The governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Haidai, said Severodonetsk remained firmly in Ukrainian hands on May 24 amid darkening prospects.
“The situation is very difficult and unfortunately it is only getting worse. It is getting worse with every day and even with every hour,” Haidai said in a video on Telegram. “Shelling is increasing more and more. The Russian army has decided to completely destroy [key city] Severodonetsk.”
Russia’s tactics are now notorious in the southern port of Mariupol, which finally surrendered on May 21 after more than two months of aerial and artillery bombardment that have reduced the city to rubble.
Armies cannot turn on a dime
Ukraine has fought valiantly and driven the Russians back from the northern cities of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv in recent weeks, but its counteroffensive has not been sustained because Ukrainian forces need time to assimilate Western military equipment, a retired NATO commander said.
“Tanks and armoured vehicles need an initial stage of personal training and team training for the driver, gunner, reloader and commander,” said Lt-Gen Konstantinos Loukopoulos, who has taught tank warfare at military academies in Kyiv and Moscow.
“They need tactical training, including test firing and exercises, which cannot be done in a few weeks. The training cycle is at least six months, and that doesn’t change in wartime,” he said.
“After [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s illusions about winning the war in 96 hours, the illusions began on the Western side,” he added.
The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany and the Czech Republic are among those who have pledged various types of armour and artillery, and that complicates matters, Loukopoulos said.
For instance, out of 90 howitzer M777 artillery pieces sent by the US to Ukraine, about 18 have been absorbed, he said, adding that it is unknown how many of the 12 or 14 César self-propelled howitzers sent by France are in use.
“For Ukraine to absorb the weapons from the West and make them operational, form the right units, and train them, it needs eight, nine months. It can’t pull active units from the front to train them,” Loukopoulos said.
That is the timeframe, he believes, within which Putin must win the war on the ground and reach a negotiated settlement.
“Under the present balance of forces, the general trend is in favour of the Russians. Right now nothing can change that,” he said.
“After a few months, with training of reserve units, there could be a [Ukrainian] strategic counteroffensive that could throw the Russians out.”
Loukopoulos believes this could likely be done by Ukraine seizing Russian territory that it could exchange for its own territory in negotiations.
“Can the Ukrainians create a fact on the ground to counter Russian gains? Right now they cannot,” he said.
“Whether we like it or not, Russia has the political and military initiative. The West is reacting to what Putin is doing.”
The fate of Mariupol
Adding to Ukraine’s woes was the final surrender of Mariupol on May 21.
Days earlier, Ukraine had given the port city’s last defenders the order to cease fighting in an effort to save their lives.
Russia said it now holds 2,431 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) who had been holed up in the underground nuclear bunkers of the Azovstal metallurgical complex. To back up claims that it is de-Nazifying Ukraine, Moscow released video of surrendering soldiers stripped to reveal tattoos of swastikas and Adolph Hitler.
The surrender not only deprived Ukraine of a large number of experienced fighters, who might be swapped for Russian POWs, it also marked the fall of a symbol of Ukrainian resistance against the odds.
Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said the Azovstal plant will not be restored.
Instead, he said, Mariupol will be developed as a resort town. His reasoning was that Western sanctions will hamper sales of iron and steel exports from Russian-controlled territory, but Mariupol can benefit from Russia’s economic isolation by wooing a captive Russian tourism market.
The Azovstal plant once exported thousands of tonnes of iron and steel. It was one of two metallurgical plants in the city, representing a $2bn investment by Metinvest. The Ukrainian government, too, had invested $600m in remodelling the city with new roads, parks and a children’s hospital.
Mariupol’s Ukrainian municipal authority believes Russia’s victory over the city killed an estimated 22,000 civilians. The attack on the city also displaced three-quarters of the population and reduced the city to rubble. The city’s new Russian occupiers admit that 60 percent of its buildings are damaged beyond repair.
The apocalyptic reality of the Russian victory at Mariupol may drive Ukrainian determination to fight along the eastern front. The question is whether Ukrainian material shortages will be insurmountable.