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Institute for the Study of War: Russian forces advance on Sievierodonetsk as Ukraine forces continue counter-offensive on Russian-occupied Kherson 

May 31, 2022


Moscow’s concentration on seizing Severodonetsk and Donbas generally continues to create vulnerabilities for Russia in Ukraine’s vital Kherson Oblast, where Ukrainian counter-offensives continue. Kherson is critical terrain because it is the only area of Ukraine in which Russian forces hold ground on the west bank of the Dnipro River. If Russia is able to retain a strong lodgment in Kherson when fighting stops it will be in a very strong position from which to launch a future invasion. If Ukraine regains Kherson, on the other hand, Ukraine will be in a much stronger position to defend itself against future Russian attack. This strategic calculus should in principle lead Russia to allocate sufficient combat power to hold Kherson. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has chosen instead to concentrate all the forces and resources that can be scraped together in a desperate and bloody push to seize areas of eastern Ukraine that will give him largely symbolic gains. Continuing successful Ukrainian counter-offensives in Kherson indicate that Ukraine’s commanders recognize these realities and are taking advantage of the vulnerabilities that Putin’s decisions have created.

The Ukrainian leadership has apparently wisely avoided matching Putin’s mistaken prioritization. Kyiv could have committed more reserves and resources to the defense of Severodonetsk, and its failure to do so has drawn criticism.[1]  Ukrainian forces are now apparently withdrawing from Severodonetsk rather than fighting to the end—a factor that has allowed the Russians to move into the city relatively rapidly after beginning their full-scale assault.[2]  Both the decision to avoid committing more resources to saving Severodonetsk and the decision to withdraw from it were strategically sound, however painful. Ukraine must husband its more limited resources and focus on regaining critical terrain rather than on defending ground whose control will not determine the outcome of the war or the conditions for the renewal of war.

Sound Ukrainian prioritization of counter-offensive and defensive operations pushed the Russians almost out of artillery range of Kharkiv City and have stopped the Russian advances from Izyum—both of which are more important accomplishments than the defense of Severodonetsk. Ukraine’s leadership has had to make incredibly difficult choices in this war and has generally made the right ones, at least at the level of strategic prioritization and in the pace, scale, and ambitiousness of its counter-offensives. That is why Ukraine still has a good chance to stop and then reverse the gains Russia is currently making.

Russian forces are likely attempting to exploit Belarusian equipment reserves to compensate for heavy material losses in Ukraine. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on May 31 that Belarusian forces are moving tanks and infantry fighting vehicles from storage facilities in Belarus to Russia to replenish combat losses.[3] This report corroborates previous reporting that Russian forces have largely exhausted their own reserves and indicates that the Kremlin is still leveraging its influence over Belarus in order to use Belarusian equipment.

Some pro-Russian milbloggers began to capture the frustrating realities of limited warfare, which may further intensify societal tensions in Russia. Pro-Russian political figure and self-proclaimed “People’s Governor of Donetsk Oblast” Pavel Gubarev said that the limited mobilization of Russians for war has divided Russian society into two groups: a small proportion that is involved in the war and the “peacetime Russians” who distance themselves from the war effort and are inconvenienced by foreign sanctions.[4] Gubarev blamed the “peacetime Russians” for failing to start collecting donations for Russian equipment, while criticizing the Kremlin for increasing propaganda about Russian successes during the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Gubarev also blamed the “peacetime Russians” for slowing down rotation rates due to fear of conscription. Guberev noted that mass mobilization could resolve the divide in society but opined that Russian commanders will not order such a mobilization to avoid mass casualties of unprepared conscripts as occurred, he notes, in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR).

Gubarev is accurately capturing a phenomenon that is normal in a limited war that nevertheless generates high casualties. Resentment by those fighting such a war and their families against those who are untouched by the horrors of combat can grow even in an all-volunteer professional military, as Western countries experienced during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It is likely to be even more pronounced in Russia, whose military relies so heavily on conscripts and involuntarily-recalled reservists. This resentment can erode morale and will to fight as well as the propensity to volunteer for military service.

Russian citizens continued to conduct a series of attacks on Russian military recruitment centers in late May, likely in protest of covert mobilization. Russian Telegram channel Baza reported that the Russian Federal Security Service arrested a former Moscow artist and opposition figure, Ilya Farber, for Molotov Cocktail attacks on military recruitment centers in Udmurtia in the Urals on May 21.[5] A Russian court had previously sentenced Farber to an eight-year prison sentence for a bribery case. The case gained Farber significant support from Russian opposition leaders.[6] Farber admitted to committing arson in court on May 30. Baza also reported two more attacks on recruitment centers in Simferopol and Tula Oblast on May 28 and May 31, respectively.[7]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces are increasingly focused on advancing on Slovyansk from the southeast of Izyum and west of Lyman.

  • Russian forces are making gains within and around Severodonetsk.

  • Russian forces are likely hoping to advance on Lysychansk from Toshkivka in order to avoid having to fight across the Severskyi Donets River from Severodonetsk.

  • The Russian grouping in Kherson Oblast is likely feeling the pressure of the limited Ukrainian counteroffensive in northwestern Kherson Oblast, especially as much of the Russian operational focus is currently on the capture of Severodonetsk.

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