After the decisive failure of Russia’s attempt to overthrow the government of Ukraine by seizing Kyiv, Kharkiv and other key cities in February and March 2022, Russia has concentrated its depleted forces in the Donbas and set itself far more limited objectives. In the two months since its retreat from the north of Ukraine, Russia has finally subdued the besieged defenders of Mariupol – who had been surrounded since the second day of the invasion – and slowly gained territory in Donbas.
Since then Russia’s most notable conquest has been the small but important town of Popasna and the surrounding high ground that overlooks key supply routes into the city of Sievierodonetsk. Russia is slowly inching forward in Donbas, but its progress needs to be understood as part of the wider context of the war as a whole.
Since the start of the invasion, Ukrainian forces have inflicted catastrophic losses on the Russian ground forces, with around 18,000 to 20,000 troops killed in action, around 60,000 total casualties and more than 4,350 vehicles confirmed destroyed or captured. To understand the scale of these losses, Russia committed 160,000 regular troops and 50,000 irregular forces to the invasion. The 775 tanks confirmed as lost represents around half the total tank strength of Russian regular forces. And the roughly 60,000 Russian casualties will be disproportionately concentrated among the infantry and vehicle crews that make up the country’s frontline fighting power.
As a result of these losses, Russia has struggled to achieve large scale successes during the second phase of the war. Consequently, the Donbas campaign has seen a steady lowering of Russia’s war aims. Large scale breakthroughs from Izyum in the North and Zaporizhzhia in the South to encircle the Ukrainian Joint Forces Operations (JFO) area failed. Attempts to encircle or storm the Donetsk Oblast cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk have also failed. Now the Russian Army is concentrating almost solely on taking the remaining Ukrainian-defended city in Luhansk Oblast: Sievierodonetsk.
In Sievierodonetsk the Russian troops are now largely made up of composite units formed from the remnants of Battalion tactical group (BTGs) and larger formations which have sustained such serious losses that they are no longer coherent units. As a result, they are no longer able to conduct large scale offensive manoeuvres to overrun or encircle defended positions.
But Russia still has the heavy firepower to tear up Ukraine’s defences in specific locations given enough time and munitions. As a result – and with its offensive operations now concentrated across a narrow area of the frontline – Russia is taking full advantage of its artillery firepower to grind down individual Ukrainian defensive positions one by one. This approach is extremely difficult for Ukraine to defend against effectively, since Russia has far more artillery firepower, far greater ammunition stockpiles, and Ukrainian troops must stay in positions under bombardment in order to hold them. Therefore, Russia has been making continual grinding progress over the past few weeks around Sievierodonetsk – advancing up to a kilometre a day in some areas.
In trying to hold positions against this concentrated Russian firepower, Ukrainian troops have been taking much heavier losses in this phase of the war, with between 100 and 200 killed in action daily. There are also other serious problems facing the Ukrainian forces, with the most potentially dangerous being a looming shortage of artillery ammunition. Ukraine has been using anti-tank guided missiles supplied by the West (like the Javelin and NLAW missiles) at a rapid rate throughout the conflict to blunt Russian advances and stop heavy vehicles. However, it has also been relying heavily on Soviet-era 152mm artillery and 122mm rocket artillery systems to do the majority of the killing once Russian formations are halted. As a result, it has been burning through pre-war ammunition stocks at a rapid pace. Nato has very limited remaining stockpiles of Soviet-era 152mm and 122mm ammunition which it can supply, and only a relative handful of western-made 155mm howitzers and 227mm rocket artillery systems have so far been delivered to Ukraine. This is a serious limitation for Ukrainian forces trying to inflict damage on Russian artillery units.
The shortage of ammunition for heavy weapons is also a limiting factor for Ukraine’s ability to conduct counter-offensive operations at scale in other areas such as east of Kharkiv in the north and around Kherson in the south.
Russian forces are stretched thinly across much of the frontlines that they hold, due to their lack of available reinforcements to feed into the meat grinder in Donbas. If Ukrainian forces can continue to put major pressure on other areas such as around Kherson, then the situation for Russia looks dangerous – they cannot contain Ukrainian and keep most of their firepower and troops concentrated around Sievierodonetsk.
But, if Ukrainian losses and heavy weapons shortages prevent them from going on the offensive in the short-term, then both sides may be left in an exhausting attritional slog over the current frontlines for the foreseeable future.
Western nations should send whatever heavy weapons and ammunition deliveries they can as a matter of urgency, to give Ukraine the best chance of pushing back an overstretched Russian Army. The West needs to remember that the Russians still have an overwhelming amount of firepower in Ukraine – and they will succeed if they can fight the war on their own terms.