With a thunderous artillery barrage, the Russian army on Thursday launched its latest offensive in Ukraine.
Much of what’s left of the Russian army—106 or so under-strength battalion tactical groups, down from 125 full-strength BTGs at the start of the war in late February—attacked north and west from Popasna in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The ultimate target is obvious. “Russian troops are attempting to siege and destroy Severodonetsk,” the Ukrainian armed forces tweeted on Thursday.
Popasna is the locus of Russian forces on the southern side of the Severodonetsk pocket, an area under Ukrainian control that extends west from the city—pre-war population, 100,000—and is surrounded on the north, east and south by areas under Russian and separatist control.
The three or so Ukrainian brigades in and around Severodonetsk include 5,000 or more troops. They’ve dug in and blown bridges leading into the city. Still, they’re vulnerable.
Just one main road threads through the town of Bakhmut across the pocket to Severodonetsk. It’s along this route that the main Ukrainian army pushes supplies to the city’s garrison.
The westward Russian thrust from Popasna might be aiming for Bakhmut, 13 miles away. The northern thrust could be attempting to complete the encirclement of Severodonetsk, 17 miles away.
It’s fair to say the Kremlin has concentrated its best remaining forces along the Popasna axis for this offensive. Airborne units, possibly reinforced by Chechen troops and mercenaries from the Wagner Group, are fighting alongside armored units with the latest T-90 tanks and BMP-T fighting vehicles.
Inasmuch as the Russian army has suffered extensive casualties after attempting to roll across Ukraine along three fronts—northern, eastern and southern—and ultimately abandoning the northern front, the Battle of Severodonetsk might represent Moscow’s best opportunity for a near-term win.
A win that could allow Russian president Vladimir Putin to declare a sort of victory in Ukraine. Even if that victory is modest compared to the Kremlin’s original goal of capturing Kyiv, destroying the Ukrainian armed forces and cutting off Ukraine from the sea.
What happens over the next few days could be critical—and should set the conditions for the next few weeks of fighting. If the Russians cut the road through Bakhmut and encircle Severodonetsk, the ensuing urban fighting could be brutal for the Ukrainian garrison.
They eventually would run out of food, fuel and ammunition. Barring a breakthrough by Ukrainian forces outside the pocket, Severodonetsk’s fall might be only a matter of time under those circumstances. Kyiv could lose several thousand troops and a key strongpoint in Donbas.
If the Russians fail to cut the road, they could end up expending their last reserves of combat strength trying to starve a small portion of the Ukrainian army in one small city.
The Russian offensive already is partially compromised. The original plan apparently was to attack from the north and south. But to do that, Russian battalions needed to erect pontoon bridges across the Seversky Donets River, northwest of Severodonetsk.
Ukrainian artillery earlier this month caught a whole brigade on the riverbanks and wiped it out, destroying the better part of two BTGs and killing as many as 400 Russians. If the Russian army completes its encirclement, it’ll have to be from the south.
The situation is fluid. As recently as Wednesday, the Ukrainian armed forces’ general staff noted Russian attacks from Popasna but insisted the Russians “had no success.” But the main assault apparently began on Thursday.