To protect its southern ‘land bridge,’ Russia might have to give up on Izyum

To protect its southern ‘land bridge,’ Russia might have to give up on Izyum

July 25, 2022 0 By Ellen Novack

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Ukrainian soldier in what looks like the Kherson front.

Over the weekend, Mark wrote about Ukraine’s more aggressive posture in the Kherson region, and the panic it is supposedly generating with Russian troops in the line of advance. Last week, I speculated that Ukraine’s big counteroffensive might actually happen toward the southeast away from Kherson, which would (along with blowing a few strategic bridges) cut off Russian forces from supply lines everywhere between Kherson and Melitpol (and beyond). Speculation aside, Ukraine will ultimately push wherever Russia’s lines are weakest. Limited counteroffensives will probe for those weaknesses, while HIMARS, Tochka-U ballistic missiles, and long range Excalibur guided artillery shells systematically destroy supply depots, rail lines, command and control centers, air defenses, and troop barracks. 

Given that US intelligence estimates that Russia has committed 85% of its land forces to the war, reinforcing their precious land bridge will be tough. Given their menu of bad options, it may be time for them to abandon their Izyum approach. Remember Izyum?

Here is the Izyum salient yesterday, July 24: 

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July 24

Here is the map two months ago, on May 24: 

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May 24

@War_Mapper played with some of the red-pink shading, so ignore that. Look at cities that have actually changed hands. The most obvious difference is that Russia captured everything north of the Siversky Donets river. That has little to do with the Izyum salient, though will all that territory filling in to its east, it’s probably time to stop calling it a “salient.”

If you recall, Russian troops at Izyum were supposed to spearhead Russia’s grand encirclement of Ukraine’s entire Donbas defense. Remember this map?

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From May 13

I made that on May 13, mocking the idea they could sustain any such attack for hundreds of kilometers with Ukraine nipping at their flanks. Eventually, Russia figured that out as well, unable to punch out more than a few dozen kilometers. It didn’t help that instead of pushing south, Russia did the Russia thing and, well, did this: 

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April 29 map

Suffering from military ADD, Russia couldn’t mass or focus its forces on a single line of attack, literally fanning out in four separate directions. That push westward seemed to freak out US intelligence: 

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I couldn’t contain myself when that came out. It might still be one of the stupidest claims I’ve seen all war. Eventually, Russia managed to move 32 kilometers to Velyka Komyshuvakha (pop. 882) before running out of steam, 200 kilometers from Dnipro (pop. 1 million). My god that was stupid. Really really stupid.

Their southern approach wasn’t much better and it wasn’t long before Russia decided that a broad encirclement of the entire Donbas wasn’t going to happen. So instead they decided to target the twin fortress cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. That has fared as well as their attempt to head in Dnipro’s direction. 

It took Russia almost three months to finally take Dovhenk’e, just 27 kilometers from Izyum. Indeed, that village is one of the few differences (south of the river) between the May 24 and July 24 maps above. That hamlet with a pre-war population of 800 cost Russia untold lives and equipment and almost single-handedly stalled Russia’s Izyum advance. Dovehenk’e was and remains one of my pet obsessions, and perhaps my favorite story this entire war. I’d love to someday write an entire book about this little speck of dirt.

It took Russia months and the combined might of Russia’s armies to take a few farmhouses in Dovhenk’e, so please explain to me how they’re supposed to threaten Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, combined populations of around 250,000?  

Embarrassingly for Russia, the Izyum approach once featured the heaviest concentration of Russian combat forces in all of Ukraine. Here was the estimated distribution on April 30, by Henry Schlottman on Twitter: 

The Izyum approach was Russia’s main approach. And little Dovhenk’e (and a lot of Ukrainian artillery falling from that exposed western flank) squashed them. Eventually many of those forces were moved to the Severodonetsk-Popasna-Lysycansk assault, but even then, the Izium area remained the second largest concentration of Russian forces in the country, and is likely still so today.

So what now? That’s a lot of Russians sitting on an exposed approach doing nothing while artillery fire continues to rain down on their positions. Ukrainian forces constantly harass Russian forces in the forest west of Izyum. 

Ukraine doesn’t need HIMARS to reach these exposed positions. Regular artillery and even anti-tank missiles are doing the trick. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine is making gains down south, and it’s clear that something big is coming in a matter of weeks. Russia is thinnest in that southern front. Logic would dictate that Russia admit their Sloviansk-Kramatorsk dream is dead and surrender this entire approach to reinforce the south. Russia can claim it’s a “good will gesture” and the pro-Russia side can cope by pretending it was all “a feint” just like Kyiv. But that land bridge to Crimea won’t protect itself.

So it was curious to see that on Sunday morning, Ukrainian sources on Telegram claimed that Russian troops had looted the towns of Yaremivka and Studenok, packed everything up, and left. 

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Studenok is on the south bank of the Siversky Donets river, Yaremivka is on the north side. The two villages have been connected by a pontoon bridge supporting the Russian assault on Bohorodychne—another contender for “hero city” status. There is a supply railhead at Yaremivka. That’s why the pontoon bridge was placed there. So is Russia really abandoning those positions? That would be incredible! 

Look below that red square, to Bohorodychne, another Ukrainian hero city, now filling the same role Dovhenk’e played for those long months. “The occupiers tried to establish control over the settlement of Bohorodychne by assaulting them,” Ukrainian General Staff reported on Sunday, virtually rolling their eyes. “And again, traditionally, without any success.” 

Given that Bohorodychne is still being actively contested, it’s unlikely Russians abandoned the two towns helping supply that assault. Maybe a unit rotating out decided to bring some looted souvenirs back home. Less likely, perhaps some unit deserted, looting their way out of town. But Russia isn’t withdrawing from here just yet.

Ukrainian advances on Kherson might yet force Russia to rethink it’s Izyum approach. In fact, it seems inevitable. But it hasn’t happened yet. 

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How about this Russian craftsmanship?

Perhaps that’s why stuff like this happens: 

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Holy crap, look at all that fire between Kherson and Melitpol! Def Mon tries to filter out traditional agricultural burns (“false positives”), but it’s unfathomable that there are that many military targets in that population no-man’s land. It’s all agricultural steppe. 

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It is nice to the see the Donbas front so (relatively) quiet. Ukrainians defending that line deserve some respite. 



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