Ukraine Situation Report: Russian Forces Break Through In Parts Of Donbas
Three months into the invasion, Russian forces look set to secure roughly half of the Donbas region, but continue to face stiff resistance.
Russian forces appear to have broken through Ukrainian lines along multiple axes on a highly localized front in the Luhansk region. This looks to be part of a large push by Russia's military to close a pocket of Ukrainian resistance that would give it complete control over Luhansk, which makes up roughly half of the larger Donbas region.
It is important to note that the exact dispositions of Ukrainian and Russian forces in the Donbas are fluid, and the two sides have often traded gains in recent weeks. Securing Luhansk would be a significant victory for the Russian government, which has claimed that taking total control of the Donbas is its immediate priority in the conflict.
Luhansk, together with the Donetsk region, make up the larger Donbas. In the lead-up to Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine in Febraury, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics, breakaway regions that have been administered by pro-Russian separatists since 2014, as independent countries.
Artillery has been a significant reason for Russia's recent successful advances in Luhansk, as well as Ukraine's ability to more generally hold the line against invading forces. More than a month ago, The War Zone explored in detail how artillery was likely to be a major factor in fighting in the Donbas overall.
The Russian military's latest successes come just a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for more long-range artillery during a speech to attendees at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, which he gave remotely from Kyiv.
Separately yesterday, at a press conference following the second meeting of the U.S.-led Ukraine Contact Group, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Poland, and Norway, had all announced plans for new military aid packages for Ukraine containing additional artillery pieces and ammunition.
Secretary Austin also said that the Czech Republic had transferred a number of Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters, as well as a batch of unspecified tanks, likely Soviet-era T-72s. The Czech government has already sent T-72s, as well as BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles. In addition, Austin said that Denmark had pledged shore-based Harpoon anti-ship missile systems, which you can read about more here.
Today, authorities in Canada announced that they were working to expedite the delivery of 20,000 155mm artillery shells to the Ukrainian military specifically to help aid in the defense of the Donbas. The ammunition was first purchased from the United States at a cost of approximately 90 million Canadian Dollars, or around 76.4 million U.S. Dollars at the present rate of conversion.
If Russian Forces do manage to take complete control of Luhansk, it remains to be seen if this will lead to more significant gains elsewhere. For months now, Russia's military has struggled to make any real advances outside of the Donbas region, and its units have even been pushed back in certain areas, especially around the city of Kharkiv in the northeast.
WARNING: Some of the updates below contain graphic material.
Before getting into the latest news below, The War Zone readers can first get up to speed on recent developments in the conflict in Ukraine with our previous rolling coverage here.
POSTED: 8:35 PM EST—
The reported Russian breakthroughs in the Donbas region in the past 24 hours have been in areas near the town of Popasna. The city of Lynam, situated to the northwest of Popasna, is now reportedly contested, as well. The main focus of these thrusts, by all indications, is on encircling Severodonetsk, the pocket around which remains the last portion of Luhansk under Ukrainian control.
"Russia has increased the intensity of its operations in the Donbas as it seeks to encircle Severodonetsk, Lyschansk, and Rubizhne," according to an assessment from the U.K. Ministry of Defense earlier today. "At present the northern and southern axes of this operation are separated by approximately 25 km [~15.5 miles] of Ukrainian-held territory."
"There has been strong Ukrainian resistance with forces occupying well dug-in defensive positions," British officials added. "Russia has, however, achieved some localized successes, due in part to concentrating artillery units."
As the fighting in the Severodonetsk pocket and other areas of the Donbas has intensified, the critical role that artillery has been playing on both sides has become plainly obvious from the mountain of video footage on social media. An ever-growing number of clips has been emerging online recently showing Ukrainian and Russian forces firing various types and the results of their strikes on various targets in the Donbas, as well as elsewhere in the country. It is also clear that the use of small unmanned aerial vehicles to help direct this fire is an increasingly common occurrence all around.
Ukraine's expanding arsenal of Western-supplied 155mm howitzers has been on full display. This includes M777 towed howitzers that Canada, as well as the United States and Australia, have supplied and French-made CAESAR wheeled self-propelled types. Prior to this conflict, the Ukrainian military did not field any 155mm types, though it had been testing various designs, including the domestically-developed 2S22 Bohdana, and therefore had no real stocks of 155mm ammunition. As such, additional ammunition deliveries from Canada and other countries are just as important as the guns themselves.
The 20,000 155mm artillery shells from Canada "will be crucial in Ukraine's current fight to defend its eastern territory," Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand said today. "Work is already underway to deliver this aid to Ukraine as quickly as possible."
"We are working around the clock to identify and provide even more military aid to Ukraine," she added.
Other foreign-supplied artillery systems, such as 122mm RM-70 multiple rocket launchers that Ukraine has received from the Czech Republic, are also in active use.
On Monday, New Zealand announced that it would be sending 30 military personnel to the United Kingdom to assist with the training of Ukrainian personnel on the operation of 105mm L119 howitzers.
Of course, as already noted, artillery is just one component of foreign military assistance for Ukraine. Additional armored vehicles and ground-based air defenses, among other things, have also been important to bolstering the Ukrainian military's continued ability to not only hold back Russian advances, but also counterattack, especially around Kharkiv.
Russian forces securing Luhansk will not necessarily translate to advances elsewhere in Donbas, either. "If the Donbas front line moves further west, this will extend Russian lines of communication and likely see its forces face further logistic resupply difficulties," the U.K. Ministry of Defense's assessment today said.
There continue to be indications that the Russian military is interested in at least trying to make pushes elsewhere in Ukraine, or at least work to consolidate existing territorial gains, especially in the southern Kherson region. Russian-backed local authorities in Kherson have now asked for Russia's military to establish a formal base there. They had previously called for full annexation into the Russian Federation.
Ukrainian President Zelensky said today that Russian forces will have to leave all of the areas they have occupied, including those seized prior to this conflict, such as the Crimean Peninsula. before it can come to an end.
Russian air and missile strikes continue to hit targets across Ukraine, as well. On Monday, Ukrainian President Zelensky acknowledged that 87 people had been killed in a Russian airstrike on a military training facility in the northern Chernihiv region back on May 16. Over the weekend, he had said that as many as 100 Ukrainian military personnel were dying each day.
The Russian government is accused of stealing Ukrainian grain and moving it out of the country by sea in order to sell it. This comes amid a total blockade of Ukrainian ports by the Russian Navy, which has prevented the country from exporting its own grain, prompting concerns about a potential global food crisis. Prior to the conflict, Ukraine alone was the source of around 12 percent of the world's wheat.
The Lithuanian government has proposed a potential international naval mission to create a safe corridor to and from Ukraine's ports along the western end of the Black Sea, particularly Odesa. The United Kingdom has reportedly expressed an interest in the idea, at least in principle. However, it remains to be seen whether this naval "coalition of the willing," which would seem to demand a willingness to engage Russian forces on some level, will come to fruition.
The western end of the Black Sea has already become something of a flashpoint in recent weeks, with fighting focused on Ukraine's Zmiinyi Island, or Snake Island, which Russian forces currently occupy. Satellite imagery that emerged online today shows that a Russian Navy self-propelled crane barge returned to the island, possibly to try again to recover a sunken landing craft and/or the Tor surface-to-air missile system that went down with it after a strike by one of Ukraine's Turkish-made TB2 armed drones. Various other ships have been spotted in the area, too. You can read more about the last time this barge appeared at Snake Island and the fighting that has been happening over that outpost here.
The Romanian military recently recovered the wreck of Ukrainian TB2, which appears to have washed ashore in that country's Black Sea town of Sulina. It's not entirely clear if this drone was shot down or otherwise crashed during operations in that general region, which could have involved taking part in the various strikes on targets on and around Snake Island.
Ukrainian President Zelensky signed a piece of legislation into law on Monday that provides a process for the country to seize and sell assets of individuals determined to support Russia's invasion. Russian government-owned assets in Ukraine, as well as those that belong to Russian nationals, are expected to be targeted until this law, with the proceeds of their sales going to support the country's war effort.
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