GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Russia probes Ukrainian defenses in northeast, but continues to monitor Kherson

The situation in Ukraine continues to develop as expected, the Russians are still active along a front about 280 km long. Kharkov arc in the north, southeast through Izyum, to Rubizhne, Kreminna and Popasna in the east, then to Horlivka in the south. Russian forces bombard Ukrainian positions and make advances and deep attacks along this arc, but they would concentrate their ground attacks in the following areas:

  • South of Izyum, where the Russians claim to be about 15 km south of the city advancing on the M03 highway; and to have also advanced about 30km towards Barvinkove. The two options for a lead in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk discussed in a previous article. (Converting international support into action and what the Russians plan to do next). Based on Russian strength assessments, these advances are likely to be probes by small forces, perhaps 2-3 battalion tactical groups on each axis. Both looking for a weakness in the Ukrainian defenses. If successfully pinned on one axis, the next echelon of Russian units will advance on the other.
  • Further east, the Russians would have pushed south about 30 km towards Lyman, a railway hub and a town of about 20,000 people. Between Lyman and Izyum, there are also reports of other similar advances, which appear to be either; isolated battalion battle groups or small battalion battle group groups advancing on separate axes and supporting each other across a broad front. The long distances traveled and the narrow frontages indicate that these operations are likely to be survey activities.
  • Pushing west from Luhansk, the Russians should occupy new ground around the towns of Rubizhne, Kreminna and Popasna. Advances here are over smaller distances and holding these areas establishes a strong base for a push against Severodonetsk, a city of around 100,000 people, it is also a major industrial city with rail connectivity and bridges useful. Severodonetsk, lies on the east bank of the Siverskyi Donets River opposite Lysychansk, another city of about 100,000 people.

The Russians are probing on a broad front, particularly south of Izyum and further east towards Lyman. The areas in which Russian ground forces also engage ground forces rather than just artillery are relatively small. This is not surprising as the Russians have limited resources and are likely to use them carefully to probe and test Ukrainian defenses before committing a larger force.

However, the westward thrust towards Severodonetsk via Rubizhne, Kreminna and Popasna appears to be more carefully organized and coordinated. Here the Russians advance methodically and cautiously over short distances, without extending. If they can take Severodonetsk, they can attack Lysychansk across the Siverskyi Donets River. Lysychansk, is tactically important because if captured, it provides a solid base to push either east towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, or south towards Horlivka.

A small Ukrainian offensive, pushing east from Kharkov and Chuhuiv, advancing about 30 km east into Russian-held territory, was reported. This offensive is probably aimed at cutting the supply line between Belgorod and Izyum.

Based on conventional military logic, Russian operations in the northeast should soon focus on one axis of advance, either the advance south from Izyum towards Kramatorsk and Sloviansk or west from Luhansk towards Severodonsteck and Lysychansk . This is necessary because the Russians are short on manpower and simply do not have the resources to maintain strong forces on both axes. The Russians will have to start concentrating their forces on one or the other axis or they risk defeat in detail (i.e. the Ukrainians use all their strength to defeat half of the Russian force on one axis then turn around and use all their strength on the other half).

An advance from the east can be supported from the relative safety of Lugansk. An Izyum advance is possible, but carries the risk of the Belgorod supply line running through recently captured and therefore more hostile territory. This factor leads to the prediction that Russia is planning to engage in an advance from the east.

Further south, in Mariupol, it seems that despite their public declarations the Russians are keen to “dig up” the last isolated defenders in the Azovstal Steelworks. Starving this group rather than attacking the area makes more tactical sense. The small group of remaining defenders should be easily contained and unable to further impact the local battle and attacking this area with its reinforced concrete bunkers, underground rooms and tunnels is simply a waste of Russian infantry soldiers boundaries. Unless the Russians need it too.

In recent days, reports of discord and low morale among Russian soldiers near Mariupol have surfaced. Furthermore, there are currently unsubstantiated reports of Chechen mercenaries executing Russian soldiers because units refuse to fight and credible sources report that Russian forces are not shrinking near Mariupol. This may mean that the Ukrainian defenders are in better shape than we thought, or that the local Russian forces are in worse condition and unable to contain the defenders safely. It could mean both. If so, we could see the fighting in Mariupol going on longer than expected.

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Since the last article, Russian generals and politicians have made statements confirming a strategic intention to build a coastal corridor to Tranistria. This concept was previously discussed when Russian forces were fighting near Mykolaiv and directly threatening Odessa. Access to hot water ports has always been a goal of Russian leaders. Strategically, Tsarist Russia, Soviet Russia and Putin’s Russia all worked hard to ensure Russia’s year-round access to the sea. So confirmation that Russian planers think in these terms should come as no surprise and that is why the fighting around Kherson is so important.

At this time, the Ukrainians and the Russians exchange blows between Mykolaiv and Kherson. This area is relatively flat and Ukrainian forces would be relatively strong and mobile in this area. The 5 Ukrainiansand The armored brigade, initially retained to defend Odessa, would be in the area. Although a reserve unit has now had two months of preparation and is bringing around 100 tanks equipped with fresh soldiers into battle, so it seems unlikely that the Russians will win here unless there is a significant change in operational strategy and Russian objectives in the northeast sacrificed.

And that’s the key dilemma the Russians face, they just don’t have the combat power to do it all. This situation is not going to change. Before the war, Russia’s economy was only slightly larger than Australia’s and from the start of the war it had been strangled by Allied sanctions. Ukraine, on the other hand, has almost unlimited resources and its NATO allies are ready to cover almost any expense. Time is not on Russia’s side.

Yesterday Russia attacked 56 targets across Ukraine with bombers and missiles. This is an attempt to bluff Ukraine and NATO into believing that Russia can block western supplies from reaching frontline forces by using long-range weapons. History shows that it is unlikely to succeed. During the Vietnam War, America attempted to use air power to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines and dropped a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia than on Germany. throughout World War II. America did not succeed and Russia with far fewer resources will too.

In summary, Ukraine is getting stronger and Russia is getting weaker, this means that the Russians must accept the tactical situation and quickly reduce their operational objectives so that they can win in a limited number of areas before the Ukrainians become too strong. My advice would be to ‘dig in’ to the northeast and hold on to the gains that have been made, then focus the main effort on the threat from Odessa. Taking Odessa at this time is probably beyond Russia’s capabilities, but by prioritizing this area they might be able to build a force strong enough to take Mykolaiv and realistically threaten Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro. This decision would force the Ukrainians to switch forces between the fronts, moving reserves from the east to counter the threat not only against Odessa but also towards Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro.

Tactically, it is important to keep the Ukrainian forces moving because, at the strategic level, it is likely that the Ukrainians are planning an offensive on or near the 9and of May. It would be wise for the Russians to be entrenched, prepared and concentrated in key areas ready to receive this offensive rather than continuing to be scattered and relatively weak on a broad front.

Ben Morgan is a weary Gen Xer with an interest in international politics. He’s TDB’s military analyst.