Fighting has sharply escalated in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Both sides are bringing in more and heavier artillery, adding to the carnage.
But it’s the Russians who have the biggest guns and mortars—and who are most willing to shoot indiscriminately. “In the coming weeks, Russia is likely to continue to rely heavily on massed artillery strikes as it attempts to regain momentum in its advance in the Donbas,” the U.K. Defence Ministry warned on Tuesday.
The Russian army for weeks has been trying to position forces for an operation it realistically can complete. Earlier in the war, the Kremlin’s aims were maximalist—capture Kyiv, advance across the Donbas and also cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea. But after the Russian army suffered heavy casualties in the abortive assault on Kyiv, Russian leaders pivoted.
Pulling its forces back from Kyiv and Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv, Russian leadership focused its efforts on Donbas. And not all of Donbas, but rather one small city: Severodonetsk, which anchors a pocket of Ukrainian forces south of Russian-occupied Izium and north of the town of Popasna.
Two or three Ukrainian brigades, together overseeing several thousand troops, defend Severodonetsk. If the Russians can encircle Severodonetsk, they might be able to starve then defeat the garrison.
After trying and failing to cross the Seversky Donets River northwest of Severodonetsk—and losing around 70 vehicles and as many as 400 troops in the process—the Russians focused their offensive on the southern side of the Severodonetsk pocket. On Thursday, Russian airborne battalions, reinforced by Wagner Group mercenaries, rolled north.
The Battle of Severodonetsk has begun.
It’s an artillery fight. Ukrainian gunners, perhaps deploying their new, American-made M777 155-millimeter towed howitzers, did most of the killing at the Seversky Donets bridgehead.
Russian gunners meanwhile have brought in their biggest cannons and mortars. Videos that circulated online in recent days depict both 2S7 203-millimeter self-propelled howitzers and 2S4 240-millimeter self-propelled mortars firing on Ukrainian positions in Donbas.
These massive artillery pieces with their 200- or 300-pound shells can penetrate earthworks and bunkers to a greater depth than smaller-calibers guns can do.
And fired indiscriminately at towns and cities, they’re devastating to civilians. Intensive Russian shelling earlier in the war around Chernihiv, east of Kyiv in northern Ukraine, damaged thousands of homes and businesses. “The scale of this damage indicates Russia’s preparedness to use artillery against inhabited areas, with minimal regard to discrimination or proportionality,” the U.K. Defense Ministry explained.
At the same time, it’s possible the Russians are learning an important military lesson. That poorly-aimed shelling isn’t an effective method of dislodging a dug-in enemy—and certainly can’t replace tanks and infantry working in close coordination with targeted fires.
“What we saw the Russians trying to do at the top of this was, you know, just pounding away at what they believe the line of contact was of the Ukrainians in large artillery barrages—and then trying to move against them in frontal assault after that, and were being rebuffed,” an unnamed U.S. Defense Department official told reporters on Thursday.
More recently, there are signs that, in the bombardment of military targets if not civilian ones, the Russians are making a greater effort to pinpoint targets—using scouts, drones or other means—before opening fire.
“And so, I think what you’re seeing is a result of their failure to make much progress using large artillery barrages against larger units,” the official added. “I think they’re adjusting because their previous tactics have been unsuccessful.”
Deliberate targeting during combined-arms operations might not spare the thousands of civilians who haven’t yet evacuated Severodonetsk, of course. For the Russians, shelling cities is a terror tactic, not a military one.
They might be taking pains to aim their guns at Ukraine’s defensive works. But that doesn’t mean they won’t also lob 200-pound shells in the general direction of some Ukrainian town.