Ukraine Situation Report: Battle Over Critical Eastern City Becomes Brutal Street Fight (Updated)
Russian forces are pressing their advantage in the east, while Ukrainian forces are counterattacking in the south.
Russia's military has seized approximately half the eastern Ukrainian city of Sieverodonetsk (Severodonetsk) after a “frenzied push,” Mayor Oleksandr Striuk told the AP today. He added that Russian forces were continuing to use withering artillery bombardments to support attempts to advance "block by block" on the ground.
Sieverodonetsk has been a central focus for days now of Russian efforts to eject Ukrainian defenders from a pocket in the eastern Luhansk region. Pushing Ukraine's forces out of this area would give Russia's military complete control over Luhansk and, as a result, secure roughly half of the broader Donbas region. Securing all of Donbas has been a stated primary objective of Russian forces for weeks.
As Russia's military has continued to focus its resources on the Donbas offensive, Ukrainian forces are now pushing ahead with a counteroffensive in the south. Satellite imagery from Planet Labs that appeared on social media today shows what appear to be pontoon bridges over the Inhulets River in the southern Kherson region that Ukrainian units have reportedly been using. Russian forces have, of course, made extensive use of combat bridging in the conflict so far, as well, with less than stellar results.
Artillery is still a major factor on both sides of the conflict on all fronts. The U.S. government is reportedly moving ever closer to a public announcement that its next tranche of military aid will include either M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) or M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), and at least some 227mm Guided MLRS (GMLRS) rockets to go with them, as you can read more about here. The War Zone has explored in detail what these systems could offer Ukraine depending on exactly what munitions they are supplied with.
WARNING: Some of the updates below contain graphic material.
Before getting into the latest updates below, The War Zone readers can first familiarize themselves with other recent developments in Russia's ongoing war on Ukraine through our preceding rolling coverage here.
UPDATED: 9:15 PM EST—
U.S. President Joe Biden has published a significant op-ed in The New York Times tonight. Most immediately, it confirms that the U.S. government is preparing to transfer "more advanced rocket systems and munitions" to the Ukrainian military. A senior U.S. official separately confirmed to reporters that the systems in question are M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), which, along with unspecified munitions for them, will be part of a new $700 million military assistance package set to be formally announced tomorrow.
That same U.S. official said that authorities in Ukraine have agreed not to use the HIMARS that they receive to strike targets inside Russia. It is unclear whether or not these restrictions cover Ukrainian territory that Russia considers to be its own, chiefly the occupied Crimean Peninsula, or breakaway regions that the government in Moscow has recognized as independent countries.
Biden's op-ed otherwise contains a number of other significant points.
"America’s goal is straightforward: We want to see a democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against further aggression," Biden wrote. "Every negotiation reflects the facts on the ground. We have moved quickly to send Ukraine a significant amount of weaponry and ammunition so it can fight on the battlefield and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table."
In the op-ed, the U.S. President made clear that the United States has no intention of stopping sending military aid to Ukraine or of easing sanctions long as the conflict persists.
Furthermore, "we will work with our allies and partners to address the global food crisis that Russia’s aggression is worsening," Biden said. "And we will help our European allies and others reduce their dependence on Russian fossil fuels, and speed our transition to a clean energy future."
The U.S. President also reiterated America's steadfast commitment to the NATO and that the United States welcomes Finland and Sweden's applications to join the alliance. He also addressed concerns about the potential escalating tensions, or worse, with Russia, including the potential for the use of nuclear weapons.
"We do not seek a war between NATO and Russia. As much as I disagree with Mr. Putin, and find his actions an outrage, the United States will not try to bring about his ouster in Moscow," Biden wrote. "So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces. We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia."
"I know many people around the world are concerned about the use of nuclear weapons. We currently see no indication that Russia has intent to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, though Russia’s occasional rhetoric to rattle the nuclear saber is itself dangerous and extremely irresponsible," he continued. "Let me be clear: Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail severe consequences."
At the same time, Biden stressed that the U.S. government is intent on making clear that "might does not make right" and that Russia must "pay a heavy price for its actions."
"If Russia does not... , it will send a message to other would-be aggressors that they too can seize territory and subjugate other countries. It will put the survival of other peaceful democracies at risk," he asserted. "And it could mark the end of the rules-based international order and open the door to aggression elsewhere, with catastrophic consequences the world over."
"Americans will stay the course with the Ukrainian people because we understand that freedom is not free. That’s what we have always done whenever the enemies of freedom seek to bully and oppress innocent people, and it is what we are doing now," Biden wrote in conclusion. "Vladimir Putin did not expect this degree of unity or the strength of our response. He was mistaken. If he expects that we will waver or fracture in the months to come, he is equally mistaken."
POSTED: 7:55 PM EST—
“The city is essentially being destroyed ruthlessly block by block,” Sieverodonetsk Mayor Striuk told the AP in describing Russia's recent advances.
“Civilians are dying from direct strikes, from fragmentation wounds and under the rubble of destroyed buildings, since most of the inhabitants are hiding in basements and shelters,” he added. “There are food supplies for several more days, but the issue is how to distribute them.”
Approximately 13,000 civilians remain in the city after evacuations were halted due to persistent Russian artillery fire. Striuk said that as many as 1,500 residents may have died since the conflict broke out in February. That figure cannot be quickly independently verified.
A Russian bombardment today reportedly struck a nitric acid tank at a chemical plant in the Sievierodonetsk, presenting an additional risk to civilians. Serhiy Haidai, Ukraine's top official in the Luhansk region, advised non-military personnel in the area to stay in their shelters and, if possible, put on protective masks.
There have been concerns voiced that cities in Donbas like Sieverodonetsk may suffer extreme damage, in general, as a result of Russia's current artillery-heavy strategy, much like the devastation wrought on the southern port city of Mariupol. The Tweet below reportedly shows extensive destruction in Rubizhne just to the northwest of Sieverodonetsk.
"Russia’s capture of Lyman supports its operational main effort, which likely remains the encirclement of Sieverodonetsk and the closure of the pocket around Ukrainian forces in Luhansk Oblast," according to a public assessment of the situation that the U.K. Ministry of Defense released today. "Routes into the pocket likely remain under Ukrainian control. Russia has achieved greater local successes than earlier in the campaign by massing forces and fires in a relatively small area. This forces Russia to accept risk elsewhere in occupied territory."
"Russia’s political goal is likely to occupy the full territory of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts," British officials added. "To achieve this, Russia will need to secure further challenging operational objectives beyond Sieverodonetsk, including the key city of Kramatorsk and the M04 Dnipro-Donetsk main road."
Seizing control of Luhansk, as well as the rest of Donbas, would be a significant victory for the Russian government. It is very possible that the Kremlin could move to fully annex this region, having already recognized the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics as independent countries that it says are no longer in any way connected to Ukraine.
Whether any of this would provide a springboard for further Russian advances, or the potential freezing of the conflict, at least temporarily, is unclear. "Russia has likely suffered devastating losses amongst its mid and junior ranking officers in the conflict. Brigade and battalion commanders likely deploy forwards into harm’s way because they are held to an uncompromising level of responsibility for their units’ performance," the U.K. Ministry of Defense said in another public assessment yesterday. "The loss of [a] large proportion of the younger generation of professional officers will likely exacerbate its ongoing problems in modernizing its approach to command and control."
"More immediately, battalion tactical groups (BTGs) which are being reconstituted in Ukraine from survivors of multiple units are likely to be less effective due to a lack of junior leaders," that assessment continued. "With multiple credible reports of localized mutinies amongst Russia’s forces in Ukraine, a lack of experienced and credible platoon and company commanders is likely to result to [sic] a further decrease in morale and continued poor discipline."
Furthermore, recent Russian successes in Donbas do appear at least partially linked to the refocusing of resources from other areas of the country. This has exposed Russian flanks in the south, as well as the north, to significant Ukrainian counterattacks.
The videos below reportedly show Ukrainian forces moving across the Inhulets River in the southern Kherson region as part of a major counteroffensive, as well as Russian efforts to halt their advances.
As The War Zone explored in depth weeks ago, artillery has become a key asset for both sides of the conflict.
Ukraine's international allies and partners are continuing to help bolster the country's artillery capabilities and capacity. This includes the aforementioned recent reporting that the U.S. government is now leaning toward transferring either M270 MLRS or M142 HIMARS rocket artillery systems to the Ukrainian military. There has been considerable discussion and speculation about what either of these systems could offer Ukrainain forces. You can read more about what they can and can't do in this recent War Zone piece.
There are reports that Poland is working to transfer 18 of its 155mm Krab armored self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine and that Ukrainian service members are already being trained to operate them. Krab has only otherwise been operated by Ukraine and is a hybrid design that consists of the turret from the British-developed AS-90M Braveheart self-propelled howitzer mounted on the same chassis used on the South Korean K9 Thunder.
The Krabs would add Ukraine's ever-growing arsenal of Western-supplied 155mm howitzers, which also includes a number of French-made CAESAR types as seen in the Tweets below.
A picture has emerged on social media, seen below, which may be the first to show a U.S.-made M109-series 155mm self-propelled howitzer in service in Ukraine. The arrival of M109 variants supplied by foreign countries, such as Belgium, had been previously announced by Ukrainian officials.
Foreign military aid packages for Ukraine's armed forces have included more and more armored vehicles of various types, as well.
The video below shows a Wolfhound Tactical Supply Vehicle (TSV), a 6x6 mine-resistant truck, from a batch that the U.K. government transferred to the Ukrainian military. The full video interestingly also includes a clip showing a Ukrainian soldier with a German 7.62mm MG3 machine gun, or some other related design.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced today that his country would send unspecified infantry vehicles, possibly Marders, to Greece. This would then enable the Greek authorities to transfer Soviet-designed ex-East German armored vehicles, likely upgraded BMP-1s, they had previously obtained via the government in Berlin to the Ukrainian military.
Old Soviet-era weapons continue to be pressed in service on both sides, as well. The video below shows Ukrainian forces employing a World War II-era D-44 85mm field gun.
The videos below reportedly show a Russian T-72B3 tank that hit multiple mines or improvised explosive devices somewhere in Ukraine earlier this month. The tank eventually suffers a catastrophic internal ammunition explosion that sends the turret flying. This is something that various types of Russian tanks in Ukraine have repeatedly experienced after attacks due to how rounds for their main guns are stored inside the hull, as you can read more about here.
Russian military missile and air strikes continue to be an important component of its operations in eastern Ukraine, as well.
The images below reportedly show the remains of a Russian Kh-22MA air-launched anti-ship cruise missile that was shot down by Ukrainian forces. There have been steady reports of Russian Tu-22M3 bombers firing these missiles at targets on land in Ukraine. If this missile was indeed intercepted, it would also underscore that Russia's military has still not been able to achieve air superiority over the country after months of fighting.
Bridget Brink, who was confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine earlier this month, has made her first visit to the country in this capacity. Her stops included Hostomel Airfield outside of Kyiv, where she saw the aftermath of the heavy fighting there earlier in the conflict, including the destroyed An-225 Mriya. This had been the only flying example of this aircraft, one of the largest types ever constructed.
Russia's state-run gas company Gazprom has now halted deliveries to companies in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany. This is in retaliation for the European Union instituting an embargo on importing Russian oil.
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