Today is the 100th day of war.
Today I’ll follow up on Mark’s on-the-ground update from yesterday, as all three major fronts (Kharkiv in the northeast, Donbas on the east, and Kherson in the south) have suddenly lit up.
Most notably, after feigning a fighting retreat of Severodonetsk — a city way out on a salient, isolated and exposed to assault from multiple sides — Ukraine’s defenders unexpectedly stiffened up, halted the Russian advance, and perhaps even retook some ground. Some claim Ukraine laid a trap modeled after the famous Russian defeat in Grozny during the first Chechen war, where rebels famously lured Russian troops into the city center before trapping and massacring a whole lot of them.
I and many others have spent the last week commenting about the folly of defending Severodonetsk when Ukraine can fall back behind the river and hold a much more defensible (and higher elevation) line at Lysychansk. (Here’s just one of those stories.) But for whatever reason, despite horrific losses in the Donbas front (Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says 80-100 Ukrainian dead every day, and another 500 injured), Ukraine has decided this city utterly lacking in strategic. value is worth the blood.
Still, what the decision lacks in any obvious strategic value, it definitely makes up in unimaginable valor and bravery. In a war that has created so many icons like the Azovstal defenders, Severodonetsk may very well bid for legendary status.
My guess is that as long as Ukraine disproportionately bleeds Russian forces, they’ll continue the defense and help stall Russian advances elsewhere. But this is not a place for a final last stand. Ukraine does not intend another Mariupol. At some point, the remaining defenders will cross the last bridge standing (which Russia has left intact because it wants those defenders out), blow that bridge, and Russia can disperse that mass of forces back to the Izyum and Popasna pockets.
Meanwhile, NASA FIRMS satellite imagery has lit up around both Kherson and Kharkiv as Ukrainian forces make new moves on Russia’s under-resources fronts. The imagery is designed to track forest fires, but turns out it’s a wonderful tool for tracking the front lines of a bloody war.
My brother took NASA FIRMS fire data and overlaid them over Nathan Ruser‘s maps with yellow dots to give us some idea of what is happening on the ground.
Just a few days ago, Mark was wondering whether Ukrainian forces east of Staryi Saltiv had been withdrawn. Things had gotten that quiet, with no evidence of any activity or presence. That changed yesterday as fires showed up all along both sides of the Donets River.
Generally speaking, fires in a city indicate that Ukraine has control. Russia’s one and only tactic is to try and flatten anywhere Ukrainian troops are present with artillery, before trying to occupy the rubble with their infantry. If any defenders survive, oops, too bad. That’s what cannon fodder is for. Time to call in more artillery!
The two fires on both side of the Staryi Saltiv bridge can be easily explained — Russia is targeting Ukrainian supply routes to the east bank. But the other four are all in supposedly Russian-held territory. The evidence strongly suggests that Ukraine is making headway, and Russia is shelling Ukrainian troops before they have a chance to dig in and establish defensive positions.
There is a caveat — you can see a road running down from Starytsia to Buhaivka, before it hits the bridge on the eastern bank opposite Staryi Saltiv. Those fires could be Ukrainian artillery hitting supply routes and convoys. Hitting an ammo truck could shine brightly enough for NASA to pick it up. The fog of war is thick. What we do know is that things are picking up in a place that had otherwise been recently quiet.
Also, this happened:
While the map has changed slowly, there has been fierce fighting in the region as Russia attempts to push Ukraine back from the border. The invaders want Kharkiv back in artillery range, and their own Belgorod out of Ukrainian range. And Russia is spooked enough about those small but steady gains that it has begun digging defensive lines at Kupiansk, Russia’s most important logistical hub for its entire northeastern war effort. (Also, the impending arrival of MLRS and HIMARS might have something to do with that.)
Ukraine has launched a three-pronged counter-offensive north of Kherson, in Ukraine’s southern front. Much like in Kharkiv, Ukraine seems to be moving slowly and deliberately, lacking the strength to fully collapse Russian lines, but pushing them methodically back. Here’s yesterday’s FIRMS fire location near the Davydid Brid section of the front lines.
Up in the northeastern quadrant of this map, you see the Ukrainian push out of its bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Inhulets River. Those fires match up perfectly with territory Ruser has marked as contested. Ukrainian forces are likely under fierce artillery barrage in territory we’ve seen time and time again as inhospitable for anyone on the attack—flat, open, lacking cover. The same thing happens anytime Russia makes any headway in the area (click that link and see for yourself). It will be difficult for Ukraine to hold that ground, much less advance, without seriously degrading Russia’s artillery capabilities.
But there are indications that Ukraine is less interested in advancing than in cutting that road south of Davydid Brid. Russian forces on the approaches toward Kryvyi Rih north of here depend on that road for supplies. If Ukraine could cut that supply route, it could very well force a Russian retreat from the north.
Moving on down the map, we see fires on Ukrainian held territory on the road to Snihurivka (upper-middle of the map, with the arrow pointing right). Weirdly, the map labels the tiny settlement of Pavlivka while omitting the much-larger Snihurivka (pop. 12,000) directly to its west on the other side of the Inhulets. These fires confirm reports of Ukrainian forces advancing on Snihurivka, while the fire inside Snihurivka itself is evidence of otherwise sketchy rumors that Ukraine has gotten a foothold in the town.
That last fire, on the bottom left, is perfectly matched to the location of a Russian advance in open space. That one is most likely Ukrainian artillery making life miserable for advancing Russians, because no matter the side, that’s the story of the Kherson front.