Ukraine exacts punishing cost on Russian forces’ eastern advance
Russian forces have taken Luhansk region, but at a very high cost in men and arms. How long can Russia sustain its rate of losses?
Ukrainian forces made a tactical retreat from the last free city in the eastern Luhansk region in the 19th week of Russia’s invasion.
The Ukrainian defenders withdrew from Lysychansk as geolocated footage showed Russian troops entering the city unchallenged.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said on July 2 that it was impossible for Ukrainian troops to fight Russian forces effectively in the city.
“During the past day, the invaders opened fire from all available types of weapons”, in Lysychansk, Privyllia, Vovchoyarivka and Zolotarivka – the last free settlements in Luhansk, he said.
“Private houses in villages burn out one by one. With such a high density of shelling, we only have time to protect the victims,” Haidai said.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the fight in the Donbas, which is comprised of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, as “the toughest – extremely difficult. The fire superiority of the occupiers is still very much felt”.
Ukraine’s General Staff admitted the following day that the decision to abandon Lysychansk city was tactical.
“In the face of Russian occupation troops’ multiple advantage in artillery, aviation, active basefire systems, ammunition and personnel, continuing the city’s defence would lead to fatal consequences,” the General Staff said. “In order to save the lives of Ukrainian defenders, the decision to leave was made.”
Like the retreat from Severodonetsk a week earlier, the withdrawal from Lysychansk marks a departure from the dogged defence of Mariupol city in May, in which almost 2,500 Ukrainian troops were ordered to surrender and were taken prisoner after exhausting their ability to inflict casualties on their Russian attackers.
In Lysychansk, the emphasis for Ukraine was on preserving the ability of its troops to fight another day.
Russia claimed victory over Lysychansk, saying Ukrainian forces had withdrawn from their last stronghold in eastern Luhansk province. However, that announcement of victory was premature, as fighting continued in smaller Luhansk settlements on July 6.
Nonetheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded Colonel Alexander Lapin and Major General Esedulla Abachev the Hero of Russia medal for their command in the takeover of Lysychansk.
In the wake of their victory, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev restated the Kremlin’s original maximalist goal of “denazification” and “demilitarisation” of Ukraine.
In March, the stated goal of Russian forces was taking the Donbas, and even that, which includes the remaining half of Donetsk province still in Ukrainian hands, has not yet been accomplished.
The very limited nature of the Russian victory in Luhansk was pointed out by a veteran Russian commander, Igor Girkin, also known by the alias Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, who in 2014 served as defence minister for the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, and is largely responsible for persuading Putin to undertake military intervention in the Donbas.
“Apparently, the emphatically defensive nature of the battle for Severodonetsk-Lysychansk on the part of the command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine was deliberate,” Girkin, who has personal knowledge of the terrain, wrote on Telegram.
“The battles were only dragged out with the aim of gaining as much time as possible and inflicting maximum losses on the Russian strike force. After the loss of the main positions was a foregone conclusion, the command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine managed to withdraw the core of its defending troops, avoiding the encirclement of even a small part of them – both in Severodonetsk and in the area of Lysychansk and Zolote-Gorskoye.”
This tactic was confirmed by Luhansk Governor Haidai, who outlined Russian versus Ukrainian advantages: “Only during the storming of Lysychansk, the enemy lost thousands of dead and wounded. Yes, they have an order of magnitude more forces and means, but the Ukrainian army is better prepared and motivated.”
Girkin notes that over the past month, “the Armed Forces of Ukraine have been continuously increasing the number of troops and military equipment in all directions – both ‘active’ and ‘sleeping’, creating a steady superiority in manpower, artillery and armoured vehicles in many of them. At the same time, the enemy continued to form strategic reserves, limiting their entry into battle even at the height of the battle for Severodonetsk-Lysychansk… Conclusion: The Armed Forces of Ukraine are completing preparations for their own active operations in one or more directions.”
Girkin also concludes that the second stage of Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine has not broken Ukrainian military capacity. On the contrary, Russian difficulties in raising fresh troops mean that it is Russian capacity that is at risk of being worn down completely. Girkin forecasts that Russia could find itself in retreat on the northern front near Kharkiv by the end of the summer as Ukrainian reserves are brought online.
“Further ignoring the above inability may negatively affect the situation on a strategic scale,” he said.
Samir Puri, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, warned against hasty judgments on Russia’s rate of attrition.
“Russia’s way of doing war seems very inhumane. Russia seems to be both failing and succeeding at the same time depending on metrics,” Puri said.
“Even their successes seem to have involved debacles to begin with. From America’s perspective, what Russia has done with its army is suicidal – treasonous even. But there’s a very different logic of suffering and loss that’s being applied,” he told Al Jazeera.
Objectively, Russia has had trouble replacing troops, and Ukrainian intelligence believes it to be conducting an undeclared general mobilisation of reservists and new conscripts. Russia’s last official death toll of 1,351 was given on March 25. At that time, NATO estimated the number of Russian dead to be between 7,000 and 15,000. Ukraine now estimates the number of Russian dead at over 36,000.
At the same time, Ukraine seems to be developing more effective interception of Russian missiles against civilian targets.
President Zelenskyy has sounded increasingly assertive about achieving a complete ouster of Russia from Ukrainian soil. Zelenskyy on July 3 repeated the mantra that Ukraine aims to take back all of the territory seized by Russia since 2014.
“We will return thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons. Ukraine does not give anything back,” he said.
Isolated by international sanctions, Putin seems to be digging deeper into his resources.
He sent to the Duma legal amendments on June 30 that would oblige Russian businesses to help the armed forces conduct military operations abroad.
“Legal entities, regardless of their form of ownership, will be prohibited from refusing government orders and contracts. Thus, the business is obliged to supply goods, perform work and provide services in order to carry out military operations outside the country,” read one description of Putin’s amendments.
Ukraine seems to have effectively turned the tables on the war of attrition adopted by Putin, seeking to wear him down faster than it is being worn down – and not just in the number of troops.
In the past week, Ukraine began to bomb Russian equipment and ammunition depots deep in Russian rear areas, forcing Russia to ration shells in some places and jeopardising the overwhelming firepower that has been Russia’s strength so far.