Severodonetsk: Two months later, Russia is still trying to capture this small Ukrainian town

The fierce Ukrainian defense of Severodonetsk, despite heavy losses, forced the Russians to concentrate their firepower on a relatively small area and delayed their efforts to capture the 10% of Lugansk Oblast they still do not control.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the capture of eastern Lugansk and Donetsk regions as one of the targets of Moscow’s special military operation launched in February. At this point, this operation has largely stalled; most of Donetsk remains out of Russian reach.

Russian forces have made modest gains, with the Russian Defense Ministry saying Sunday that the city of Metelkino, southeast of Severodonetsk, has been taken. But the Russian goal of encircling the Ukrainian forces defending the sister cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk seems far away.

In a campaign that lacked agility and imagination, the Russians resorted to one principled tactic: suppressive indirect fire on any and all Ukrainian positions, regardless of the collateral damage.

The goal is to leave nothing to protect. The use of ground troops to capture and hold urban areas was less frequent and less successful.

Smoke rises over the city of Severodonetsk, as seen from Lysichansk, Lugansk region of Ukraine, on June 8, 2022.

In a video released over the weekend of Ukrainian special forces in the area, one unidentified Ukrainian soldier says: “They are throwing everything they have, all the ammunition they have. It doesn’t matter to them whether these are our positions or civilian areas, they wipe everything off the face of the earth and then they use artillery and then they begin to move forward little by little.

During intense urban fighting, about 500 civilians, including dozens of children, took refuge at the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk. Unlike Azovstal plant in Mariupol, it provides little protection underground. Ukrainian officials say people who previously refused to leave have food supplies but can no longer be evacuated from the plant due to heavy fighting.

But, as in the case of Azovstal, the Azot plant and its immediate surroundings became the center of Ukrainian resistance, which irritated the Russian command.

According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank in Washington, “Russian forces are likely to face increasing losses and degradation of troops and equipment, making it more difficult to attempt to resume offensive operations at other critical points as the slow battle for Severodonetsk continues. ”

Just as more than a dozen battalion-tactical groups were involved in the defense of Mariupol, overcoming the resistance in Severodonetsk turns out to be laborious.

Sanding resistance

The Ukrainians say they have inflicted heavy casualties on Russian troops in the area, thanks in part to new equipment from Western allies, including longer-range anti-tank weapons and howitzers supplied by the US and France. On Saturday, the Armed Forces of Ukraine announced that units of the 11th separate motorized rifle regiment of Russia suffered significant losses and were “withdrawn from the combat area to restore combat capability.”

However, Ukrainian supply lines are under constant attack, and it has become more difficult to transport supplies from the far west in the Donetsk region along the highway to Lysichansk.

ISW still expects that “Russian forces will probably be able to capture Severodonetsk in the coming weeks, but at the cost of concentrating most of the available forces in this small area.”

A Ukrainian soldier walks through a trench towards a Ukrainian army position between the southern cities of Mykolaiv and Kherson on June 12, 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russian tactics so far involve a crackdown campaign south of the city – in places like Syrotin – and then attack Ukrainian defenses from multiple directions.

Ukrainian officials say the Russians are increasingly using drones to pinpoint their defensive positions. “The Russian military is monitoring the air day and night with the help of drones, adjusting firepower, quickly adapting to our changes in defensive zones,” said Serhiy Gaidai, head of the Luhansk Regional Military Directorate.

Western support for Kyiv must not stop, said NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Elsewhere, along an active front line stretching over 1,000 kilometers (over 620 miles), little territory is currently being ceded or captured.

The main goals of the Russians in the Donbass are to capture the industrial city and transport hub of Sloviansk and the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk, but they have made very limited progress towards both goals. They may also be vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks south and west of the city of Izyum.

Southern Ukraine presents a different picture. It appears that the Russians are consolidating the gains made in the early days of the war on lines that allow them to defend the coastal strip in depth. The Ukrainian counter-attacks on the city of Kherson have had limited progress, as the Russians are now well entrenched and show little interest in trying to reconquer new territory.

As British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Sunday after his second visit to Kyiv: “Time is of the essence. Everything will depend on whether Ukraine can strengthen its ability to defend its territory faster than Russia can restore its ability to attack.”

Fragile morale

During the defense of Donbass, some of the best military units of Ukraine were punished. Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told CNN last week that tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been killed since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24. Probably the vast majority of them were soldiers.

The UK Department of Defense estimated over the weekend that Ukrainian forces likely defected in recent weeks, though it believes Russian morale is far more fragile.

Thus, it is not only about supplying Ukrainian forces with long-range precision weapons, but also about strengthening training. Johnson is promoting a plan where the Allies will be able to train up to 10,000 soldiers every 120 days.

Despite their losses, and even despite the fact that in some places they station old T62 tanks, Russian troops maintain a huge superiority in armored vehicles and combat aircraft. And despite their heavyweight and predictable strategy, they can continue to destroy Ukrainian defenses. A video emerged over the weekend showing the extent of the destruction in Liman, near Slovyansk, just as Popasnaya and Rubizhnoye were razed to the east in April.

But with an accelerated flow of weapons capable of negating Russia’s advantage in heavy artillery and missile systems, Ukrainian forces could still prevent the enemy from inflicting such destruction on even more cities further west.