The Russian army and its separatist and mercenary allies appear to have entered Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, possibly signaling the impending fall of the last Ukrainian-controlled city in the Donbas region east of the Donets River.
At the same time, there are reports of a second Ukrainian counteroffensive in just the last week in southern Ukraine. The Russians reportedly are falling back toward Snihurivka, a key stronghold west of the Inhulets River 25 miles north of Russian-occupied Kherson.
There’s a terrible logic to the war’s uneven unfolding. The Kremlin has concentrated most of its best remaining forces for the assault on Severodonetsk. That has left the Russian formations on the southern front relatively vulnerable to Ukrainian attack.
At the same time, it’s not apparent that Kyiv rushed all its available forces to defend Severodonetsk. Some of the Ukrainians’ new American-made M-777 howitzers are supporting the Kherson counteroffensives—as, apparently, is a new armored brigade the Ukrainians recently formed using T-72 tanks from Poland.
Ukrainian commanders seem to be accepting the risk of losing Severodonetsk in exchange for a shot at winning Kherson. Conversely, Russian commanders seem to be willing to risk Kherson if it means winning Severodonetsk.
Incentives might explain the diverging war aims. As Russia’s wider war on Ukraine enters its fourth month, Moscow steadily has narrowed its definition of victory. As recently as February, the Russians aimed to capture Kyiv, dismantle the Ukrainian government, destroy the Ukrainian armed forces and capture enough of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast to transform Ukraine into a landlocked country.
But the Russians lost the battle for Kyiv and, in the south, stalled just outside Kherson—sparing Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest port and the key to the country’s eventual rebuilding. After also failing to encircle a large Ukrainian force in Donbas by rolling south from Izium, the Russians narrowed their goals in the east, too.
For several weeks now, they’ve focused on capturing Severodonetsk, a city with a pre-war population of 100,000. Taking Severodonetsk, the last free city in Luhansk Oblast, could allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare a sort of “victory” in Donbas—even if that victory comes at the cost of Russia’s remaining combat power.
For the Ukrainians, Kherson—pre-war population 290,000—is more valuable than Severodonetsk. Not only is Kherson bigger, it’s an important seaport with substantial economic potential.
It’s possible but hardly certain that, when the dust from the current campaigns settles this summer, Russia and Ukraine will have swapped Severodonetsk for Kherson. What that might herald for the next phase of the war is hard to predict.
Mobilizations could be the critical factor. To sustain its eastern offensive, the Kremlin is hiring mercenaries and scraping the army’s training base to form fresh battalions. There are reasons to believe Russia soon is going to run out of good troops.
It’s not clear Ukraine suffers the same manpower constraints. There apparently are more volunteers for military service in Ukraine than the government can afford to arm and deploy. Ukraine needs heavy weaponry and ammunition—and lots of it.
If Russia runs out of forces and Ukraine acquires enough weapons to build up its own forces, the war’s momentum dramatically could tilt in Kyiv’s favor in the phase after Severodonetsk and Kherson.
But if Russia can maintain its army and Ukraine fails to acquire the weapons its own army needs, the momentum might tilt in the other direction. Moscow might discover it can widen its aims.