The situation in the war in Ukraine is changing as Russia moves east

They eliminated most of the Ukrainian defenses in the Luhansk region, strengthened control over a strip of territory in the south, improved logistics and command structure, and reduced the effectiveness of Ukrainian attack drones.

Over the past week, the Russians have been rewarded for intense—some even ruthless—shelling of the remaining parts of the Luhansk region held by Ukrainian forces, which have finally surrendered Severodonetsk and lost territory south of Lysichansk.

The head of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, predicted last Friday that Russian forces would completely encircle Lisichansk within two to three days. While they are not, but the city is in imminent danger.

Russian forces have also stepped up their attacks in the Donetsk region, moving a little closer to the belt of industrial cities in the region that runs south from Sloviansk through Kramatorsk to Konstantinovka.

In Lysychansk and many cities scattered along a winding front line that runs through five regions, Ukrainians may well face a repeat of what happened in Severodonetsk, from where they were fired upon to retreat.. There was simply nothing left to protect.

The immediate dilemma for the Ukrainian military is whether they will remain committed to the defense of Lysychansk, risking the loss of troops and weapons if the city is encircled, and whether the Ukrainian political leadership will order a withdrawal to new defensive lines.

If so, can the units now enclaved in Ukraine retreat without being wiped out? Large sections of the highway from Lisichansk to Bakhmut are littered with debris, and Russian units are closing in on Bakhmut itself.

Artillery shells hit the city of Bakhmut on the morning of June 26, 2022, damaging several houses and killing at least one person.

It appears that the Russians are currently not advancing from Izyum in the north towards Slavyansk, despite repeated attempts to break through the Ukrainian positions. However, Ukrainian officials warned Sunday that Russian forces were “massing” north of Sloviansk. The Russian military can quickly mobilize several battalion tactical groups across the border.

Some Russian military bloggers remain optimistic. Yuri Kotenok, for example, believes that Russian troops do not have enough manpower to encircle the heavily fortified cities of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk.

In the long term, Ukrainians’ greatest hope is that as they deploy more Western weapons capable of destroying Russian artillery, missile systems and command posts far behind the front lines, they can gradually narrow the firepower gap.

Ukraine may have experienced the worst week since the fall of Mariupol

But weapons such as the HIMARS missile system, which has a range of 70 kilometers (43 miles) in the configuration supplied to Ukraine, require weeks of training. And in the Donbas, a few weeks is a lot, given the current pressure on Ukrainian forces.

This pressure is all the greater since many of the units stationed in the region are among the most experienced in Ukraine. They have been worn out by the sheer intensity of Russian bombing and are not easy to replace.

And the Ukrainian military has already lost some of the weapons sent to the front in battles. The Russian Defense Ministry said last week that Russian strikes had already destroyed some of the US-supplied M777 howitzers.

The Russian offensive also learned from the mistakes made during the initial and failed offensive against Kyiv. Air defenses, mainly S-300s, have been deployed to provide extensive rather than localized cover, making Ukrainian attack drones less effective. Surprisingly, fewer videos have been posted on social media lately showing Ukrainian warplanes in action.

A man inspects a bomb crater after Russian artillery shells hit the Kharkiv area on June 26, 2022.

Russia appoints new commanders

The Russian hierarchy was also reorganized: the new commanders of the southern and central forces were sent to Ukraine under the overall leadership of Deputy Defense Minister Gennady Zhidko.

The Institute for the Study of War said that “the Russian high command is conducting a reshuffling and restructuring of the military command in order to better organize operations in Ukraine.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that the first official visit by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the high command to the forces involved in the “special military operation” came when everything seemed to be going in Russia’s favor. Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is always an orphan.

Rob Lee, a Russian military analyst at King’s College London, noted that Zhidko sat next to Shoigu in meetings during his visit. Li recalled that Russia apparently “did not have a commander-in-chief at the initial stage (in March), which violated the principle of one-man command.”

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Victory Day military parade in downtown Moscow on May 9, 2022.

The great unknown is whether Russia’s success in winding down Ukrainian defenses in Donetsk could further expand its military objectives beyond a special military operation—perhaps an attempt to maintain momentum to the Dnieper River, which essentially divides Ukraine in two.

This is the worst-case scenario for Ukrainians, and for now it remains more of a distant possibility than an imminent risk. Ukrainian forces still defend about 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 sq mi) of Donetsk alone (an area the size of Connecticut).

Despite the failures of the Ukrainians in recent weeks, there is still plenty of evidence that Russian armored vehicles are also suffering from high levels of wear and tear. Western officials believe that some of the battalion task forces have been recreated.

And there may be a positive side to the failures on the battlefield for Ukraine: they put forward arguments in favor of an accelerated supply of weapons from the West just at the time of the meeting of the G7 leaders.

One of President Zelensky’s most devoted supporters, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is aware of the risk of “Ukraine fatigue” as the battlefield appears to be turning in Russia’s favor.

Russian missiles hit Kyiv at the start of the G7 summit in Europe

“The first few weeks and months of Ukrainian resistance were characterized by overwhelming global unity and a huge upsurge in support from the Ukrainian people,” he said as the G7 meeting began in Germany.

“It is important that this is maintained in the long term. The behavior of Russia and the atrocities that Putin commits must not become the norm in the eyes of the whole world.”

US President Joe Biden made a similar appeal. “We have to stay together. Putin from the very beginning expected that NATO and the G7 would somehow split, but we have not done this and are not going to,” he said.

There’s no sign of either side blinking at this point, not least because there’s so much at stake.

Hal Brands, writing in Foreign Affairs, said that the conflict “has highlighted and deepened the fundamental global divide of today – the clash between advanced democracies committed to the existing international order and Eurasian autocracies seeking to subvert it.”

But for Putin, this war of choice is part of a (major) existential struggle against US hegemony.

The Institute for the Study of War concluded that the Kremlin “intends to wage a protracted conflict in Ukraine and seeks to advance mobilization efforts to support long-term military-political goals in the occupied territories of Ukraine.”