Deadlock in the Donbas Ukraine and Russia are facing the same two problems on the eastern front: enemy fire and the Siverskyi Donets river
In early May, both Russian and Ukrainian troops launched offensives on eastern Ukraine across different parts of the less-than-mighty Siverskyi Donets river (which crosses from Russia into Ukraine before flowing parallel to the Ukrainian-Russian border). Since then, it's been the same story over and over again: one side's troops try to cross the river to launch an attack, but enemy artillery thwarts their attempts, destroying whatever bridge they’ve built and their forward guard. Every kilometer gained is paid for in blood, and the key question right now is whether the Russian army will manage to use the advantage it has before Ukrainian forces begin widely applying precision weapons obtained from the West.
In this article, our editors attempt to assess the military situation in Ukraine based on the available data. Meduza opposes the war and demands the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
Where is the Ukrainian army advancing?
- Ukrainian troops are making progress in the areas north and northwest of Kharkiv. Their offensive was triggered in part by Russia’s military command itself when it withdrew its combat-capable troops, likely including a significant part of its artillery, a process that didn’t end until late April. It’s unclear where these units were taken; they haven’t been observed on the battlefield since the retreat. The Russian detachments were replaced by units of soldiers from the self-proclaimed Donbas republics. They’ve so far been unable to hold back advancing Ukrainian forces.
- Near the village of Ternova (about 30 kilometers, or 18 miles, from Kharkiv), Ukrainian troops reached the border of Russia’s Belgorod region on May 10. Ultimately, though, this hasn’t (yet) caused any major problems for Russia’s military command; back in April, Russian troops retreated across the national border along a front hundreds of kilometers long. As a result, it’s unlikely that Ukrainian forces will attack Belgorod, which is only a few dozen kilometers away. In any case, there’s no sign that Ukrainian would launch a ground offensive on Russian territory any time soon; the Kremlin is too unpredictable, and the move wouldn’t make strategic sense.
From videos and photos posted by eyewitnesses on social media. We’ve laid out a significant part of the “documentary evidence” of the war on the map below.
- A more dangerous turn of events for Russian troops might be if Ukrainian forces manage to advance to the east from the village of Staryi Saltiv (immediately after Ukrainian forces took the village back, its mayor was arrested on treason charges) and Chuhuiv, a village near Kupiansk; they would also reached the main logistical center for all of Russia's forces in the northern Donbas. But the terrain, including the Siverskyi Donets river, with thick forest on either side, makes this difficult. In recent weeks, both sides have been stuck in a loop: every time one side tries to cross the river to launch an offensive, enemy artillery thwarts their attempts, destroying whatever bridge the attacking side has built along with its forward guard.
- Crossing the river from Staryi Saltiv is practically impossible, as that part of the river has a manmade reservoir that’s hundreds of meters wide. The village’s bridge has been blown up, but to the reservoir’s north, not far from Velyka Pysarivka, there’s a dam that would theoretically make it possible to cross the river. So far, Ukrainian troops haven’t tried this approach.
- Further south (near Chuhuiv), Ukrainian forces established a bridgehead on the river’s left bank in late March and early April, but Russian troops have kept them from launching an offensive from there.
- In early May, Ukrainian forces made an attempt to cross the Siverskyi Donets just west of the city of Izyum, where Russia has a regional base with long-range artillery. The offensive seems to have failed; the Russian Defense Ministry released a video showing an airstrike destroying a Ukrainian pontoon (floating) bridge near Protopopivka. Ukrainian troops have likely made other attempts to cross the river since then (near the village of Chepil), but there have been no reports of major Ukrainian advances into Izyum. Ukraine’s military command seems to be unable to provide enough supplies to maintain large units here as there are no reliable crossings.
- Still, the situation will remain risky for Russian troops east of Kharkiv: the front stretches for 160 kilometers (about 100 miles) here (despite being “protected” by the Siverskyi Donets). A new Ukrainian offensive on Kupiansk, which would put all of Russia’s forces there in a critical position, is highly likely — and those forces make up the majority of Russia’s troops in the Donbas. Even with the challenges it presents, the Siverskyi Donets river is far from an insurmountable obstacle.
Where is the Russian army advancing?
- Russian forces managed to cross the Siverskyi Donets south of Izyum in the first stage of the war, when they captured the only bridgehead they control on the river’s right bank. It was occupied in late March (and led to significant casualties) and has been greatly expanded since. In the last few weeks, however, Ukraine’s command has sent large reserves towards the bridgehead (Russian air forces failed to prevent this), and Russia’s offensive has stalled. Fighting has been ongoing since mid-April on the outskirts of the village of Dovhenke, which is still under Ukraine’s control. On May 11, Russian forces occupied the village of Velyka Komyshuvakha on the bridgehead’s flank, though they’re still far from achieving the offensive’s main goal of controlling the road junction in Barvinkove (at least far by the standards of this war; in reality, Russian troops are only about 10-20 kilometers, or 6-12 miles, from Barvinkove). Russia’s main problem here is Ukrainian artillery, which can fire all the way to Izyum.
- The Russian command’s more recent decisions indicate that they’ve abandoned the idea of encircling all of Ukraine's Donbas forces and are now trying to split Ukraine’s front into multiple pieces. It’s unclear whether this approach was planned or whether it was caused by the failure of Russia’s offensive from the bridgehead in Izyum; in April, we wrote that dividing Ukraine’s front might be Russia’s main plan. The main blow (which Ukraine’s command seems not to have expected) was struck not from the bridgehead in Izyum, but from across the river, near Lyman and Yampil. Yampil was captured by the Russian army in April, while the reserves Ukraine transferred here are still in control of Lyman.
- Meanwhile, Russian troops reached the Siverskyi Donets river east of Yampil and tried to cross it in order to cut off Ukrainian troops (at least two brigades, with a combined total of 8-10 thousand soldiers) from the larger cluster of Ukrainian forces around Lysychansk, Sievierodonetsk, and Rubizhne.
- Russian troops brought pontoon bridges to the river near the village of Belogorivka and transferred a battalion (likely the 90th Tank Regiment) to the right bank; soon after, a cluster of equipment that they hadn’t yet managed to deploy into battle formation came under fire from Ukrainian artillery. The pontoon bridges were destroyed, and dozens of pieces of equipment were shot down and abandoned by their crews, including tanks, IFVs, engineering vehicles, and sections of the bridges.
- It’s unclear whether any Russian units were able to gain a foothold at Belogorivka after being beaten by artillery, or if all of them were completely destroyed (or retreated). But it’s safe to assume that their attempts to cross the river and surround Ukrainian troops stationed in Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk will continue. The road connecting Lysychansk to the rest of Ukrainian-controlled Ukraine is only 7-8 kilometers (around 5 miles) away from Russia’s forward troops on the Siverskyi Donets. Russian reinforcements, including new pontoon bridges and other engineering equipment, have been spotted to the north of the river.
- It’s possible that the Russian troops that managed to take control of the city of Popasna as late as May 9 will advance on Ukraine’s forces here. However, the state of Russia's army in Popasna is currently unclear, and the battle for control of the city was intense; it’s also unclear what condition the Ukrainian forces driven out of the city are in.
- In other parts of the front, trench warfare and artillery fire continue. “Wali,” a Canadian volunteer who returned home in May after a trip to Ukraine, described the challenges Ukrainian troops are facing due to Russian artillery fire.
Does this mean the war has reached a stalemate?
But this doesn’t mean it will be at a stalemate forever. The winner in the region will ultimately depend on which side has more — and more effective — artillery.
Which side will that be?
At the moment, the Russian army has a quantitative advantage when it comes to artillery (and aviation). The amount of weapons it’s concentrated in the region allows it to continue its slow advance on the Donbas. However, its weapons aren’t always being put to good use. Its artillery battalions have too few basic drones, and it’s applying them in too centralized an area. Russian troops are often unable to conduct effective reconnaissance and call for artillery fire on identified targets.
In the coming weeks, Ukrainian troops' effectiveness on the battlefield is likely to increase significantly thanks to Western howitzer shipments and precision shells. An image here shows the advantage of guided missiles compared to unguided ones: at long distances, unguided missiles become less accurate, meaning that hitting a target requires a higher number of weapons and leads to higher ammunition consumption. Additionally, guided missiles have a longer range (up to 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, as opposed to 20 kilometers, or about 12 miles). Russia has similar shells for its Krasnopol weapon systems and actively uses them in battle.
- So far, Ukraine seems to have only received a small supply of guided missiles. The main problem is the cost of ammunition (from $20,000 to $70,000 — and sometimes as high as $220,000 — apiece). Even Western armies have limited supplies of these shells due to their prohibitive cost.
- Another problem for the Ukrainian army will be the diversity of weapons it receives (including M777 howitzers from the U.S. and Canada, Caesar cannons from France, Panzerhaubitze 2000 howitzers from the Netherlands, and so on), as well as the country’s lack of personnel and capacity to service the weapons. Such a mixed group of weapons will likely be impossible to repair inside the country.
Another way the stalemate could end has to do with artillery control.
Ukraine has reportedly developed software that allows it to order an attack on a target identified by front line troops and drones in just tens of seconds. In addition, the attack can come not just from a few weapons crowded in a single area but from separate artillery installations scattered over a wide area. This increases Ukraine’s chances of surviving under enemy artillery and air fire, as weapons in multiple, separate areas are harder for Russian forces to locate and hit. On top of that, deliveries of Starlink satellite Internet kits from Elon Musk have already begun playing a role in the war — they’ve ensured the fire control system has reliable, secure communication for almost every single unit and weapon.
Still, we don't know how widely the fire control system is being used in practice thus far — and Russia’s military complex had already begun working on a similar system before the war. It’s also anybody's guess how these systems have impacted the course of the fighting.