Russian forces were on the verge of encircling the Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk in the Donbas region last night in what is becoming the crucial battle of the war.
Two wings of the Russian advance are only about 15 miles apart. If they meet they will trap Ukrainian forces in a pocket containing Severodonetsk, the neighbouring town of Lysychansk and a string of other towns and villages.
Russia was “throwing” troops and equipment into the battle, Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador in London, said. He said Moscow had accumulated enough troops to reach “some of their goals” locally. “We hope that they will soon go back to [their] homes,” he told TalkTV. “But they’re throwing in more and more soldiers.”
Prystaiko said the Russians were also bringing in more equipment.
The city has held out since the start of the Russian invasion in February. But the Russian withdrawal from Kyiv and other parts of the north at the end of the first stage of the war has allowed them to concentrate manpower, tanks and artillery in Donbas, adding 30 more battalion tactical groups, the main fighting unit of the Russian army.
Ukrainian defences have begun to crumble in the past three weeks, with Russians gaining crucial towns such as Popasna to the immediate south of Severodonetsk. They also blew up the main bridge to Severodonetsk’s rear, connecting it to Lysychansk.
In its latest assessment, the UK Ministry of Defence said Ukrainian forces fighting in Luhansk were facing sustained attempts to sever supply lines and stop reinforcements of western weapons, which have become an important element of the fighting.
“Russia’s capture of the Severodonetsk pocket would see the whole of Luhansk oblast [region] placed under Russian occupation,” it said.
Western officials presented an even gloomier prospect for Ukrainian forces privately, saying they believed it was only a matter of time before Russia encircled the pocket.
Yesterday Russian forces also advanced to the edges of Donetsk. They captured the town of Svitlodarsk, 50 miles from Severodonetsk, and two other settlements near by.
“Now we are observing the most active phase of the full-scale aggression which Russia launched against our country,” Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, a Ukrainian defence ministry spokesman, said. “The situation on the eastern front is extremely difficult, because the fate of this country is perhaps being decided right now.”
The Centre for Defence Strategies, a Ukraine-based think tank, said Russian troops and their proxies were advancing at high speed. They were only a mile away from the T1302 road that serves as the main logistics route for Ukrainian troops in the pocket.
“The Russians are constantly advancing at high speed from Popasna to the north, bypassing the Ukrainian troops, which are holding Komyshuvakha, Khram Sviatogo, Katerinivka and Hirske,” it said.
Franz-Stefan Gady, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said cutting Ukraine off from the T1302 would “massively complicate” the supply of Ukrainian forces. He said the road was already in range of Russian artillery.
“Russian forces are slowly but methodically advancing and are systematically trying to cut off Ukrainian forces from their supply lines,” he said. “The situation for Ukrainian forces is increasingly becoming critical as there is mounting anecdotal evidence that they are running low on ammunition, fuel and other supplies.”
There are an estimated 15,000 civilians in Severodonetsk, suffering under some of the most intensive shelling of the war to date outside Mariupol.
Few observers expect the Ukrainian defences to hold indefinitely. But Ukraine and its supporters in the West hope that they will inflict such heavy losses on the Russian side that, with new supplies of more advanced weaponry arriving, the Ukrainians will be able to launch a counteroffensive against a weakened and over-stretched opposition.
They point to a new intelligence claim by the Ukrainian general staff that Russian forces were taking 60-year-old T-62 tanks out of storage to supplement their forces.
The Ministry of Defence said that winning the whole of Luhansk would stretch and weaken Russia’s own supply lines. However, the damage being done to Ukraine’s manpower is also severe.
Kyiv’s worst fear is that if Russia takes all of Donetsk and Luhansk, it will declare its mission complete and press for a ceasefire, with not only Donbas but large swathes of southern Ukraine as far as the Crimea securely under its control.
- The US will today close the last avenue for Russia to pay its billions in debt back to international investors, making a Russian default for the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution all but inevitable. The Treasury Department said in a notification last night that it did not plan to renew the licence allowing Russia to keep paying holders of international bonds through American banks.