Severodonetsk area enters a new, critical phase as Russia presses in

Severodonetsk area enters a new, critical phase as Russia presses in

June 21, 2022 0 By Ellen Novack

Ukrainian servicemen dig a trench in the outskirts of Lysychansk on June 21, 2022, as Ukraine says Russian shelling has caused "catastrophic destruction" in the eastern industrial city, which lies just across a river from Severodonetsk where Russian and Ukrainian troops have been locked in battle for weeks. - Regional governor Sergiy Gaiday says that non-stop shelling of Lysychansk on June 20 destroyed 10 residential blocks and a police station, killing at least one person. (Photo by Anatolii Stepanov / AFP) (Photo by ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukrainian soldiers digging new trenches on the outskirts of Lysychansk, June 21, 2022.

Every time it seems impossible that the intensity of combat in Ukraine could increase … it increases. On-the-ground reports, official Ukrainian statements, and NASA’s FIRMS data all agree that conflict is hitting staggering new levels. There are reported Russian offenses taking place in both Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts. At the same time, Ukrainian counteroffensives are reportedly continuing in these areas. And there is what both sides are treating as the main prize at the moment: that continued area of Ukrainian control extending east to Severodonetsk.

At the moment, Russia has a reported 36 Battalion Technical Groups (BTGs) lined up along the north side of the river east of Izyum and surrounding Severodonetsk. At the same time, more Russian forces are pressing up from the south, with heavy fighting near Toshkivka. That puts Russian forces about 10 kilometers south of Lysychansk. If Russia can break the Ukrainian lines there, they could threaten both Ukrainian artillery along the bluffs and the only escape route from Severodonetsk.

FIRMS data around Severodonetsk on June 21. (With new information, blue dots south of Lysychansk are likely in Russian-occupied area.)

Ukrainian officials had earlier signaled that this week would be “decisive” in the battle for Severodonetsk. However, a withdrawal from the city may already be underway. On Sunday, Ukrainian forces were reported to only control the area around the Azov plant in the industrial area of the city—a powerful echo of the situation in Mariupol. Over the course of the day on Monday, Russian forces reportedly gained a foothold in the area around the plant, and in the last few hours Ukrainian troops have reportedly been forced back from around half of the plant area. Patterns of fire into the city now show that most of the hot spots are along the southern edge of the city, rather than in the northern areas previously being targeted. This seems like a good indicator of the changing line of control.

It’s been over three weeks since Russia claimed to have “completely liberated” Severodonetsk, and almost five since Ramzen Kadyrov’s Chechen TikTok crew first put out a propaganda piece that claimed to show residents of the city happily greeting Russian invaders. Over that time, Ukraine has blasted holy hell out of Russian forces, supply deports, and artillery stationed beyond the city. The pattern of fire still shows that areas well on the other side of Severodonetsk continue to be targeted, along with intense fire on the north side of the Siverskyi Donets River where Russia is expected to try forcing another crossing.

But if Ukraine is going to hold on in Severodonetsk, it’s going to take another tactical miracle. And it needs to happen soon.

As kos has pointed out several times, losing Severodonetsk wouldn’t mean that Russia has “won the war” or “conquered the Donbas” or anything like it. There are other cities and locations Ukraine can defend with far better strategic positions. But there’s little doubt that if Russia does manage to take the city, pro-Russian media will wave that gain, no matter what the cost in men and material, as an example of Russia’s “inevitable victory” over Ukraine. Be prepared for the “they took Mariupol, and Melitopol, and Kherson, and now Severodonetsk, and what has Ukraine taken back?” rhetoric to form its own FIRMS map of hot spots on social media.

Updated to reflect Russian capture of Myrna Dolyna

When I started writing this update, this next section included the reassuring news that while Russian forces had taken Toshkivka after weeks of back and forth fighting, Ukrainian forces had withdrawn in good order in that “ten kilometers is a long way when you’re scraping out ‘victories’ by the meter.” My conclusion was that in spite of the relative proximity of Russian forces and Lysychansk, it wasn’t clear that Ukrainian positions across from Severodonetsk were under any immediate threat. Civilians have reportedly been mostly evacuated from this area, which has been heavily damaged over the course of Russia’s invasion. Ukrainian forces reportedly withdrew from Toshkivka in good order, to be positioned to the north. And 10 kilometers … is a long way in this war. 

However, in just the last hour (1PM ET), Russian forces have reportedly moved rapidly to capture Myrna Dolyna. This puts Russian forces right on the doorstep of Lysychansk, about 5 kilometers outside the city and 10 kilometers from Ukrainian artillery positions on the bluffs at the north end of town. That rapid movement, and the pressure happening against Zolote and Hirske just to the west, reinforces the critical position now going on in this area.

Directly south of Lysychansk, Russia is attempting to flank dug-in Ukrainian forces at Zolote. They’ve been hitting the position there from three sides, but so far have failed to dislodge the Ukrainian troops. However, that position is looking extremely tenuous on Tuesday. Reports from the area say that things are getting grim in Zolote and Russian forces appear to be moving to close a circle around Ukrainian forces in Zolote and Hirske. Zolote was another entrenched position that has been well defended and has held out under weeks of attack. There’s a potential there that Ukraine could find significant forces caught within this closing loop.

Over the last three weeks, Russia has made multiple attempts to grab the highway between Bakhmut and Lysychansk, which would make it more difficult for Ukraine to get people and supplies in or out the Severodonetsk area. On Sunday, Russia apparently took a portion of that highway. On Monday, Ukraine took it back. Fighting in the area is going on again on Tuesday. That’s been the way things have gone ever since Russia launched the attack on Severodonetsk.

There had been a lot of back-and-forth claims of control around Toshkivka over the last week, but it seems that on Monday Ukrainian forces withdrew and repositioned to the northwest. Toshkivka and the areas around it have also been the scenes of heavy fighting. Ukraine had prepared defenses in the area. That Russia was able to move so quickly into Myrna Dolyna shows that Ukrainian forces had no position to take a similar stand south of Lysychansk.

Six kilometers is still a long way in a war where victories have been measured by the meter … but it’s a lot less than 10 kilometers, which is where things stood at the start of the day.

On the north side of the river, Russia is reportedly still preparing to press another river crossing, but they also reportedly took heavy losses in capturing Lyman and are reorganizing and resupplying before making the attempt.

Ukraine has pushed Russian forces back south of Zaporizhia. (Open image in another tab for a better view.)

What Ukraine calls the “south” command celebrated one of their largest tactical victories on Monday with the reported destruction of numerous Russian vehicles, including a tank and two artillery guns. This appears to be part of a general pushback against a Russian attempt to move north toward Zaporizhia. The biggest change in the map seems to be that a lot of villages and towns in this area that were in dispute a week ago are firmly back in control of Ukraine. Russian forces are reportedly digging in at points along a line between Polohy and Vasylivka in anticipation of a Ukrainian counterattack.

Russian counter to Ukrainian counterattack pressing Ukraine back from Tomyna Balka.

After moving more BTGs into Kherson oblast, Russia has launched a counter to the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the area. As with the Ukrainian push, most of this action appears to be focused on the very southern end of the line. While Ukrainian forces are still pressing in along the highway that leads to Chornobaivka and Kherson airport, Russia has apparently pushed back forces that were moving toward Tomyna Balka. The villages of Myrna and Pravdyne, both of which were in Ukrainian control a few days ago, are once again in dispute.

However, it doesn’t seem that there have been any large reversal of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. All of the villages being fought over were in Russian control just over a week ago, and some reports indicate that the Russian effort has “already run out of steam.” Watch this area over the next couple of days to see if Ukraine can either take back Pravdyne, or finally press beyond Kyselivka, which is a key Russian position.

Snake Island

I don’t have a map of this one (though NASA’s FIRMS data does show some “hot spots” in the sea), but after destroying a Russian tug attempting to resupply Russian forces on Snake Island, Ukraine reportedly carried out a bombing mission against the island on Monday, reportedly destroying a radar installation. 

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