The Russian Army Has Set Its Sights On A Single Small City In Eastern Ukraine

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Eighty-five days into Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, the Kremlin’s aims have shrunk to miles and towns.

If there’s an overarching strategic goal in Moscow right now, it’s to surround and destroy the handful of Ukrainian brigades around Severodonetsk, a city with a pre-war population of 100,000 in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Compare that to Russia’s initial goals—to occupy Kyiv, decapitate the Ukrainian government, capture all of Donbas and Ukraine’s Black Sea coast and destroy the Ukrainian armed forces.

Three months ago, Moscow planned to smash Ukraine into a leaderless, landlocked and unarmed rump state. Now, Russian leaders might settle for slightly expanding their control in Donbas and possibly eliminating a few Ukrainian brigades.

Even that isn’t going well for the Russians. In the last week, Russian forces have captured a few hamlets around Severodonetsk. But the town of Lyman, which anchors Ukrainian defenses 25 miles west of Severodonetsk, still is under Kyiv’s control.

At the same time, the Russians haven’t advanced very far beyond Popasna, a town 20 miles south of Severodonetsk that fell to the invaders on May 7. “Russian forces intensified shelling and conducted unsuccessful offensive operations near Popasna in preparation for the Battle of Severodonetsk,” the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War noted Wednesday.

The U.S. Defense Department is equally unimpressed. “I think as you look at the fighting in the Donbas in particular and I mean not just over the last 24 hours but over the last days and even more than a week or so, I mean, you’re starting to see Russian offensive operations become smaller in their size and scale and you’re seeing their objectives become more localized,” an unnamed Pentagon official told reporters on Tuesday.

“Again, this is, you know, towns and villages and sometimes crossroads that these guys are trying to achieve,” the official added. “So it’s just sort of a shrinking of their objectives and their goals.”

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Russia’s heavy losses—tens of thousands of troops and thousands of vehicles—help to explain the diminishing aims. With shallow manpower reserves and an arms industry struggling from foreign sanctions, Russia cannot easily restore damaged units or stand up new ones.

The Russian army began the current campaign with around 125 battalion tactical groups. Today it has just 106 BTGs, according to the latest Pentagon assessment. And those BTGs are weaker. “We’re seeing more company-sized units get involved in the movements,” the unnamed official said.

“We talk about battalion tactical groups all the time, and rightly so—that’s how they organize. But what we’re beginning to see in the last few days is just a more smaller, more localized approach using smaller units, which makes perfect sense.”

“And again, we think that this also goes to reinforce the notion that it hasn’t just hasn’t been much progress in the Donbas, a lot of back and forth, again, fighting at a smaller scale.”

The Kremlin is pulling out the technological stops for a push toward Severodonetsk—a push that might represent Russia’s last opportunity to make territorial gains in Ukraine before it exhausts its combat power. The Russian army has deployed to Donbas its best T-90 tanks and BMP-T fighting vehicles.

But even the fanciest armored vehicle is little more than a target when it rolls into battle without adequate support while strictly following inflexible orders. “They still have not corrected their coordination issues,” the Pentagon official said. “They’re still not integrating their units very well. Their communications are still not very efficient between commanders.”

In true Russian tradition, the Kremlin is counting on firepower to compensate for its diminishing troop strength and inelegant command. “Russia has likely resorted to an increasing reliance on indiscriminate artillery bombardment,” the U.K. Defense Department stated Tuesday.

The big guns might not help. The Ukrainians have had years to prepare for the same bombardment the Russians are counting on to clear a path for their diminished battalions. Kyiv’s troops are dug in. Some dozens of feet deep in concrete bunkers.

Having surrendered its grander ambitions, the Russian army now is aiming for Severodonetsk—as though capturing one small city in Donbas would justify the loss of thousands of Russian lives. The problem for the Russians … is that the Ukrainians know they’re coming.

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