Putin’s War: Russia, Ukraine in Bloody Seesaw Over Donbas, Kherson

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A month ago I asked if Ukraine could actually win Putin’s War against the much smaller country, but to “count me as a skeptic.”

I was a little less skeptical then, due to Russia’s embarrassing retreats from Kyiv and Kharkov. I’m a bit more skeptical now, due to Ukraine’s frustration in trying to stop Russia from nibbling away at the last parts of Donbas.

Ukrainian defense writer Ilya Ponomarenko just published a must-read piece for Forbes that most people will miss. It’s written in his native language so I had to make do with an awkward Google Translate version. That aside, here’s Ponomarenko’s assessment of the latest developments in the vital Donbas region:

The threat that Russia will create a Severodonetsk “cauldron” in two attacks, closing it near Siversk, has never been so real. About 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers of the regular army, the most powerful units defending this territory, could be trapped, cut off from unoccupied Ukraine, and possibly exhausted and destroyed.

This would be a big political and military problem for Ukraine. And it would probably strike a blow to the nation’s morale, especially after the recent Azovstal drama.

But despite pessimistic forecasts in the media, the Ukrainian command decided to strengthen the Severodonetsk garrison and fight on, rather than retreat to avoid a possible catastrophe.

If Ponomarenko is correct, Russian forces are developing a smaller version of the potential double envelopment I warned readers about three months ago:

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Bill Roggio, the editor of the Long War Journal, reports for Daily Mail that “in eastern Ukraine, which Putin declared independent last week, Russian forces are tying down Ukrainian troops that are needed elsewhere.”

Cracks in the Kremlin like the tiny one seen today will grow if Ukraine can string out the fight for as long as possible. That crack won’t matter at all if Putin takes back the upper hand.

If Ukraine doesn’t wise up, they could very easily throw away their early moral victories — and an untold number of fighters — to a double envelopment. First at Mariupol, then in the entire east.

Russian forces have since proven incapable of an envelopment on such a large scale, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take what’s left of Donbas while delivering a serious body blow to the Ukraine Army.

“None of the Russian Army’s problems are going to matter,” I concluded back then, “if Ukraine doesn’t show a little less bravado and a little more military sense.”

Related: ‘It Became Necessary to Destroy the Country to Save It’

On Sunday, author and retired U.S. Army general Mick Ryan published a Twitter thread on how the Russian military has learned and adapted from its early failures.

Two excerpts:

More recently, the Russians – as highlighted in briefings by senior Russian officers – have consolidated their aims to narrower objectives in the east. And they have shifted their forces to give themselves a better chance at achieving these tighter strategic goals.

The Russians are using this concentration of combat forces to bludgeon their way through Ukrainian defences, destroy military units and population centres, and to capture additional territory.

If there’s a bright spot for Ukraine, it’s in the southwest, in the Kherson area. Ryan notes that “In stripping forces from other regions, and focussing on the east, it has made the Russians vulnerable elsewhere. The Ukrainians have thus launched a counteroffensive around Kherson.”

Furthermore, “Given the intensity of Russia’s eastern operations, will they remain capable of offensive operations after the next few weeks?”

So it might well be the correct choice for Ukraine to hang on as long as they can in Donbas, as far forward as they can. But given the stakes, it’s going to be a very costly choice if they’ve gotten it wrong.

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