Ukraine Situation Report: Russian Forces Advance In Key Eastern Cities
Ukrainian forces are fighting against encirclement to prevent invading units from seizing half of the eastern Donbas region.
Russian forces have entered Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine today and a local official says defenders there could be forced to withdraw to avoid encirclement. Ukrainian units standing their ground in a pocket of territory to the southwest of this city are all that stands in the way of Russia's military taking full control of the entire eastern Luhansk region.
Earlier in the day, the Ukrainian military had disputed reports that Russian and Russian-backed forces had taken full control of Lyman, around 30 miles to the northwest of Severodonetsk along another edge of the pocket. Officials in Ukraine did acknowledge that Russia's military had occupied most of the city.
Ukrainian forces reportedly traded ground with their Russian opponents in the southeastern end of the pocket and the entire situation remains highly fluid.
Ukrainian forces losing Luhansk would put roughly half of the country's broader Donbas region under Russian control and would be an important practical and propaganda victory for the Kremlin. The Russian military has said that it is primarily focused at present on seizing all of Donbas.
Separately, Russian forces continue to appear to work to consolidate their positions in areas of southern Ukraine. There have been long-standing concerns that the Russian government could move to outright annex the Donbas and other parts of Ukraine under its control. Authorities in Moscow could potentially seek to use that bifurcation to freeze the conflict, as least temporarily, though the government in Kyiv has said that it is unwilling to cede any territory in order to bring the conflict to an end.
Russia's ongoing blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports, especially Odesa, continues to be of significant concern to the international community. The lack of access to those ports has stranded an estimated 22 million tons of wheat and other grains in Ukraine, prompting concerns about potential food crises in various parts of the world. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said today that the U.S. military currently has no plans to intervene directly in the situation. The Turkish government is reportedly in talks with its Russian counterparts about the possibility of opening up a corridor for commercial vessels, but so far nothing substantive has come from those negotiations.
WARNING: Some of the updates below contain graphic material.
The War Zone readers can get up to speed first on recent developments in the conflict in Ukraine with our previous rolling coverage here.
POSTED: 9:30 PM EST—
Serhiy Hayday, head of Ukraine's regional administration in Luhansk, confirmed earlier that Russian forces had made their first forays into Severodonetsk, triggering fighting near the city's Mir hotel. In a post on Twitter earlier today, he denied reports that the city was surrounded.
However, "it is possible that in order not to be surrounded, they [defending Ukrainian forces] will have to leave," he had said, according to the BBC.
Severodonetsk is a key component of the remaining pocket of Luhansk that is under Ukrainian control and has been the subject of intense Russian bombardments in recent days. Russian forces have made important, though still relatively small gains in various areas of Donbas recently through the heavy use of massed artillery fire ahead of ground assaults.
Ukrainian forces are still reportedly fighting in or around Lyman, which has been the target of heavy Russian artillery fire as ground forces moved in. Satellite imagery released today by commercial provider Maxar Technologies shows a Russian mobile assault bridge of some kind has been established over the Zherebets River, allowing forces to continue to flow into the city despite an established bridge having been previously destroyed to slow their advance.
Other imagery from Maxar shows the impacts of fighting Lyman, as well as artillery positions nearby. The company has also provided a look at the destruction in Popasna, another major area fighting in this particular salient.
For its part, the Ukrainian military does appear to be trying to hold on as long as possible in this pocket of Luhansk, possibly hoping to take advantage of the poor performance of Russian units in urban areas across the country in the conflict so far. With that in mind, it's interesting to note that there are reports that some of Russia's limited number of BMPT armored vehicles, specifically designed for combat in dense urban environments, have been deployed to support the fighting in and around Severodonetsk.
Ukrainian forces are also reportedly making heavy use of artillery in the defense of various portions of the front lines in Donbas and elsewhere in the eastern end of the country.
"The situation in Donbas, as expected, is very difficult. The occupiers are trying to achieve by day 100 of the war the goals they hoped to achieve in the first days after Feb 24," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in one of his regular addresses today. "So they’ve concentrated in the Donbas maximum artillery, maximum reserves."
With this in mind, Ukrainian officials, including President Zelensky, have been actively calling for the country's allies and partners to increase deliveries of artillery systems, among other things, as part of new military aid packages. Earlier this week, reports emerged that the U.S. government is finally considering sending either M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) or M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to Ukraine, despite a reticence to do so in the past. Advocates of transferring either of these systems to the Ukrainian armed forces have argued that they could have game-changing impacts on the conflict. The War Zone recently explored in detail the reality of what they can and cannot do for Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military has already received a significant number of additional artillery pieces as part of ongoing foreign military assistance efforts. This week, the country's armed forces highlighted the recent acquisition of 155mm FH70 towed howitzers from Italy.
"Russia’s Southern Grouping of Forces (SGF) likely remains tasked with occupying southern Ukrainian territory," a U.K. Ministry of Defense assessment today said, underscoring ongoing Russian military efforts to consolidate its positions in that part of the country. "In recent days, Russia has likely moved 50-year-old T-62 tanks from deep storage into the SGF’s area of responsibility."
"The T-62s will almost certainly be particularly vulnerable to anti-tank weapons and their presence on the battlefield highlights Russia's shortage of modern, combat-ready equipment," British officials added. You can read more about the appearance of these dated Cold War-era tanks in southern Ukraine here.
Russian forces continue to impose a total blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea, preventing the country from exporting wheat and other grain. There are increasing concerns that this will have serious impacts on global food supplies given that, prior to the conflict, Ukraine produced approximately 12 percent of the entire world's wheat.
Speaking at a routine press conference today, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby acknowledge the serious issues resulting from the blockade, but said that the U.S. military has no plans at present to take any steps to break it. "Everybody understands the pressure and the urgency here," he told reporters. He also pointed out that the government of Denmark had recently agreed to transfer shore-based Harpoon anti-ship missile systems to the Ukrainian military. However, as The War Zone noted earlier this week, these weapons alone will not be enough to end the dominance of Russian forces in the western Black Sea.
Reuters reported yesterday that the Turkish government is in negotiations with its Russian counterparts about potentially establishing a safe corridor for commercial ships to and from Ukrainian ports, but there are no indications that officials in Moscow will be receptive to this idea. The Lithuanian government has previously called for an international naval task force to break the blockade, with officials in the United Kingdom reportedly backing the idea "in principle," but neither country appears to have moved forward at all on this proposal.
Work is being done to create dedicated overland routes for Ukrainian grain exports, but road and rail networks simply cannot match the capacity that commercial shipping had previously provided.
In the meantime, the Russian government has been accused of illegally seizing Ukrainian grain supplies and exporting them itself.
The video below reportedly shows American (or other English-speaking) volunteers fighting on behalf of Ukraine ambushing Russian forces.
The pictures and video below show Russian trucks equipped with large screens and speakers being used to broadcast Russian state media programming to residents in the occupied southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.
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