The situation of Ukrainian troops opposing the Russian invasion in the far east of the country is becoming increasingly precarious.
After Moscow’s army has been trying unsuccessfully for weeks to fully capture the city of Sieverodonetsk and making little progress, Russian forces have now broken through several Ukrainian defenses from the south.
Sieverodonetsk and the city of Lysychansk, west of the Seversky Donets River, are the easternmost areas of the country still controlled by Ukrainian troops.
If they fall to Russia, Moscow would control the entire Luhansk region. That would be at least a partial success for Vladimir Putin, who has declared conquering the entire Donbass as one of his war goals.
In the past few days, Lysychansk was still considered a suitable place of retreat for the Ukrainian troops from Sievjerodonetsk because the city is on a hill and is considered to be well defendable.
“In the direction of Sieverodonetsk, the enemy has captured the settlements of Loskutivka and Raj-Olexandrivka,” the Ukrainian general staff wrote on Facebook on Thursday. Syrotyne is also said to be stormed by Russian troops.
This means that the Ukrainian units in Sievjerodonetsk only have a maximum of four kilometers wide to retreat. According to British intelligence, some Ukrainian troops have already withdrawn.
And on the other side of the river, too, Russian troops have been advancing on Lysychansk comparatively quickly in recent days. First, under heavy Ukrainian return fire, the troops captured the village of Toshkivka.
According to the Russian news agency TASS, Moscow’s troops are now about to capture the village of Vovchoyarivka, which is about twelve kilometers southwest of Lysychansk.
In the report, Tass cites people familiar with the matter who are close to the troops of the Luhansk separatist region. The village is close to a main road that runs from Lysychansk to the southwestern Ukrainian-controlled city of Bakhmut.
According to the British Ministry of Defence, Russia has gained five kilometers of territory south of Lysychansk in just a few days. What seems little at first glance is definitely a success in the largely deadlocked struggle in Donbass.
With the advance of Russian troops on both sides of the river, the supply routes of the Ukrainians are now in danger of being cut off. In the past few days, Kyiv had significantly strengthened the troops in Lysychansk.
According to the representative of the Luhansk separatists in Moscow, Rodion Miroshnik, Russian troops have already cut the last connecting road from Lysychansk to the west. According to his estimates, at least 5,000 Ukrainian soldiers are surrounded. There are said to be 500 soldiers in the villages of Zolote and Hirske. This assertion cannot be verified.
However, a team of journalists from “Bild” managed to travel to Lyssychansk on Wednesday. How dangerous that is became apparent on the return trip when reporter Paul Ronzheimer’s team came under fire.
The Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Hajdaj, announced on Thursday night that the Russian armed forces are pulling together even more reserves around Sievjerodonetsk around Lysychansk in order to completely encircle the Ukrainian troops.
They are “shooting at Lysychansk with artillery, rockets, aerial bombs, rocket launchers,” Hajdaj wrote on Wednesday in the online service Telegram. “They destroy everything.”
In the meantime, it is also considered possible in Kyiv that Russia will achieve the goal of a boiler. Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych expressed concern that Russian forces could cut off the twin cities from Ukrainian-controlled areas.
“The threat of a tactical Russian victory is there, but they haven’t done it yet,” he said in a video posted online. What would happen in that case is unclear.
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Ukraine could still create a strategic retreat and save most of the soldiers threatened by encirclement.
Perhaps the general staff and the government in Kyiv will also take the risk of a second Mariupol and the troops will hold out and tie up Russian units. In this case, a bloody encirclement would threaten in Luhansk. In Mariupol, several thousand Ukrainian soldiers put up fierce resistance for weeks up until May 20 in the Azov steel works.
The fact is that the tough fight for the last remnants of Ukrainian-controlled territory in Luhansk is already causing immense losses for both armies.
One of the two pro-Russian separatist armies deployed in the Donbass for Moscow is said to have lost up to 10,000 fighters; around 2,000 are said to have been killed and around 8,000 injured, as a separatist representative announced this week.
That makes up about half of the Separatist forces. Experts estimate that around 100 Ukrainian soldiers are killed in Donbass every day.
It has long been considered unlikely that Ukraine will hold the two contested cities in Luhansk. Observers only disagreed about how long it would take; some spoke of weeks, some of days.
What would happen after a Russian conquest is currently still speculation.
Kiev’s strategy could be to completely thwart the Russian advance. The calculus: Due to the high losses, the Russian army has to forego further offensives after the conquest of Luhansk.
Until Russia organized supplies, more Western weapons and ammunition would be at the front. The Ukrainians could fight much more effectively.
It is also noticeable that both Moscow and Kyiv sent many comparatively untrained and not optimally equipped units into the Luhansk battle of attrition. On the Moscow side, these are the separatists, and on the Ukraine side, the Foreign Legion and the Territorial Defense.
Two possible conclusions can be drawn from this: either both armies have already lost their best soldiers. Or they don’t want to use them in this attrition in order to use them for eventual later offensives that need professional military. The US military expert Michael Kofman calls the current situation the “most dangerous phase of the war for Ukraine”. How it turns out is completely open.