Yes, I’m a broken record: From a military standpoint, the battle for Severodonetsk makes no military sense.
Isolated and exposed in a deep salient, on the wrong side of a river, Severodonetsk should not be worth a single Ukrainian life. It has zero value to Ukraine’s ultimate war aims, particularly since next-door Lysychansk is protected not just by the river, but by altitude, overlooking the surrounding areas.
Russia’s desperate designs on the city are similarly ill-advised. Reportedly half of its entire army in all of Ukraine has been deployed in the Severodonetsk area. Rather than use those troops around its Izyum and Popasna salients to try and encircle Ukrainian defenders in this pocket, Russia decided to assault the heavily fortified city with Ukrainian supply lines intact. This is not Mariupol, which held out for two and a half months under complete siege. Ukraine has options.
Russia should have kept the city’s defenders pinned down while the bulk of its forces worked on that encirclement. But its motivations here are not military. Vladimir Putin is reportedly demanding the city fall by June 10 so that he can declare the whole of Luhansk Oblast (half of the Donbas region) conquered. It’s a political-propaganda assault, not a strategic one. Both sides are spilling a lot of blood over a piece of land with little actual military significance.
Yet Ukraine seems to have made lemonade out of lemons, and the battle’s current trajectory suggests that there was a method to Ukraine’s madness.
On the first day of its assault, Russia declared control of 80% of the city as Russian sources gloated over a mass Ukrainian retreat. Chechen leader / puppet Ramzan Kadyrov took to TikTok to declare the entire city liberated. From all indications, it appeared Ukraine was doing the sensible thing — a fighting retreat to Lysychansk, behind its river, to its higher ground.
Then a funny thing happened. Reports claimed Ukraine had laid a trap, lulled Russia into the city’s center under a false sense of security, then pounced. There were claims that Ukraine had recaptured 50-70% of the city. Then, a day later, Russian forces were seemingly back in near-full control, with Ukrainian forces hunkered down in the large Azot chemical plant on the edge of town. After claiming Ukrainian control over half the city on June 5, Ukrainian Luhansk governor Sergei Gaidai said on June 6 that “[t]he situation in Severodonetsk has worsened for us. We continue to control the city’s industrial zone. “
Was that Ukrainian counter-offensive just a rumor? Fictional propaganda? A consensus began emerging that it was all likely a mirage. But new evidence from both Russian and Ukrainian sources paint a more complex picture, one in which control of the city is fluid and ever-changing, and Gaidai further explained in an interview what was happening:
The situation in Severodonetsk is very difficult. For the Russians, this (the capture of the city – ed. ) is fundamental, because they have already lied that they completely control it, but in fact there are battles in the city. Therefore, they throw all their reserves there and fire with everything they have.
A couple of days ago, the special forces really came in and cleared almost half of the city. When the Russians realized this, they simply began to level it with airstrikes and artillery. It makes no sense to sit in some high-rise building and wait until everything is completely destroyed.
Therefore, ours now again control only the outskirts of the city. But the fighting is still going on, Severodonetsk is being defended by us, it is impossible to say that the Russians completely control the city. And in the near future, I hope that this will not happen.
Ukrainian special forces reportedly operate at night, clear blind Russians from its positions, then retreat when Russia responds with its typical smash-everything artillery barrage. With nothing but rubble left standing, Ukraine is no longer restricted by its desire to protect urban infrastructure. Thus, Ukraine can now rain its own artillery and mortar fire from Lysychansk’s high ground anytime Russian forces expose themselves amidst the rubble.
The Institute for the Study of War concludes that “Ukrainian forces are continuing to conduct a flexible defense of Severodonetsk and are likely focusing on inflicting high casualties on Russian personnel rather than seeking to hold the entire city. That’s a clever way to put it. Holding the city is of little military value… unless Russia mangles its assault to the point that allows Ukraine to inflict a disproportionate amount of damage to the Russian invaders.
Ukrainian presidential advisor Aleksey Arestovych confirms that Ukraine is less interested in holding the city itself, than in using it as fly paper to kill as many Russians as possible.
The key here, to be clear is “Ukraine also retreated.” The ground is not important. What matters is the damage inflicted.
Meanwhile, Ukraine appears to be getting its western longer-range artillery systems and counter-battery radar into Lysychansk, as NASA FIRMS imagery seems to suggest: some interesting fire patterns.
Those circled fires are about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Lysychansk’s bluffs, and what else would Ukraine be hitting in some fields behind the front lines? In fact, the cluster of fires at the top right are on a bluff. I’d bet my first-born * those were artillery positions.
As for the fires in Severodonetsk itself? As Arestovych says, the city is no longer an infantry battle. It’s yet another artillery duel in a front of artillery duels. You have to think Ukraine is okay with that, since it is Russia under real pressure to actually occupy and clear the city.
Meanwhile, the open supply lines into Severodonetsk means Ukraine can rotate troops and supplies in and out of the city. Here is one unit rotating out:
While others rotate in:
At some point, Ukraine will have to pull out of Severodonetsk. The alternative would be the full collapse of the Russian army, and it does not seem we’re quite there yet. And Ukraine does not need boots inside Severodonetsk to shell Russian positions from Lysychansk. But as long as the city resists, Ukraine locks up an inordinate amount of Russia’s combat power in this corner of the map, far from other key fronts. And in places like Kherson and Kharkiv, it’s thinning out Russian forces to the point that makes new Ukrainian territorial gains possible.
No, I would not bet my first-born.