Is Russia Gaining the Upper Hand in Ukraine’s East?
Kyiv’s carefully cultivated image of military invincibility is running up against harsh battlefield realities.
As Russian forces press their advantage in Ukraine’s east, the Western maximum-pressure campaign against the Kremlin faces its toughest test yet.
Severodonetsk, the last Ukrainian stronghold in the Luhansk region that sits just across the river from nearby Lysychansk, is being pounded by Russian airstrikes and artillery fire. “There are battles on the outskirts of the city. Massive artillery shelling does not stop, day and night,” Severodonetsk mayor Oleksandr Stryuk told the AP. “The city is being systematically destroyed – 90 percent of the buildings in the city are damaged.”
Russian troops have advanced on the city from three directions since early May in an attempt to trap the Ukrainian forces located in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk salient. Officials belonging to the pro-Russian breakaway Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) told Russian news outlet RIA on Friday that Severodonetsk is now fully encircled. “At the moment, in the city of Severodonetsk, in the city itself [and not on the outskirts], the retreat paths of Ukrainian troops are cut off, because there are three bridges there that they could have used to leave. One bridge was destroyed, the second will not support any equipment because it’s in dire condition, and the [third] Proletarian Bridge is controlled by our forces. Anyone who tries to leave the settlement will be destroyed,” said LPR military spokesman Andrei Marochko. “We cut off all routes through which they could escape, and we control, surveil, absolutely the entire territory… if they want to return to their loved ones, they need to make the right decision,” Marochko added.
The siege of Severodonetsk comes on the heels of steady Russian advances in the Donbass over the past month. Russian forces control almost the entire Donbass region and several surrounding areas, effectively depriving Ukraine not only of its industrial heartland but also of some of its biggest wheat-producing regions. The Russian military reportedly occupies most of the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, with only the administrative city of Zaporizhzhia and adjacent farmlands remaining in Ukrainian hands. To the southwest, Russian forces appear firmly in control of the Kherson region.
Reports of Ukrainian troops refusing to fight and surrendering en masse, previously confined to Russian state television, have made their way to Western media. In a video uploaded to Telegram on May 24, members of the 115th Brigade 3rd Battalion, based in Severodonetsk, announced that they will no longer fight due to a lack of military equipment and proper leadership. “We are being sent to certain death,” said one of the volunteers, as per The Washington Post. “We are not alone like this, we are many.”
The government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has largely kept Ukrainian casualty numbers a secret in an effort to bolster morale, instead pivoting international attention to the losses sustained by Russia over the course of the invasion. The Russian Defense Ministry said this week that Kyiv is writing off Ukrainian soldiers lost in combat as “deserters,” an accounting trick used to keep official casualty figures low. “On Ukrainian TV we see that there are no losses … there’s no truth,” Ukrainian officer Serhi Lapko told The Washington Post.
But Kyiv’s carefully cultivated image of military invincibility is running up against harsh battlefield realities.
The invading Russian forces, buoyed by a slate of logistical, numerical, and qualitative advantages, are forging ahead with their strategy of encircling pockets of Ukrainian troops while choking off major Ukrainian-held cities from supplies and reinforcements. Russian troops outnumber their Ukrainian counterparts seven to one in the war’s eastern theater, according to senior Ukrainian officials. “The Russian side managed to gather its reserves before we did. We’re lagging behind, which makes the situation at the front extremely difficult,” admitted Ukrainian presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych.
As the reality on the ground appears to slowly shift away from the prospect of a decisive Ukrainian victory, some prominent voices are calling on Western leaders to revise their maximum-pressure policy toward Moscow.
Former U.S. secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger warned in Davos that the Western campaign to “inflict a crushing defeat” on Moscow poses fatal risks to European and global stability. “Negotiations need to begin in the next two months before it creates upheavals and tensions that will not be easily overcome. Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante,” he said, suggesting that Ukraine should at least tacitly acknowledge Russia’s control over Crimea and the status of the pro-Russian separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic (DPR and LPR) in Donbass.
Kissinger’s comments drew sharp rebuke from Kyiv, which has categorically rejected any prospective peace settlement involving territorial concessions. "Mr. Kissinger emerges from the deep past and says that a piece of Ukraine should be given to Russia so that there is no alienation of Russia from Europe. It seems that Mr. Kissinger's calendar is not 2022 but 1938, and he thought he was talking to an audience not in Davos but in Munich of that time," said Zelenskyy in his nightly address. Kissinger’s comments earned him a spot in Myrotvorets, a controversial Ukrainian nationalist website and NGO that maintains a running list of “enemies of Ukraine.” Myrotvorets accused the senior statesman of spreading “Russian-fascist propaganda” and acting as an “accomplice to the crimes of Russian authorities against Ukraine and its citizens.”
But the Biden administration—which has invested $53 billion in aid to ensure Ukraine’s victory—and like-minded Western governments appear intent on staying the course. "We need to make sure that [Vladimir] Putin loses in Ukraine and that Ukraine prevails ... that Russian aggression is never again allowed to threaten peace in Europe,” said British foreign secretary Lizz Truss on Thursday. The war in Ukraine largely continues to be framed by Western policymakers as a chiliastic struggle between good and evil—a global crusade against “dictatorship and autocracy” into which the entire Free World has been conscripted. “Therefore, we must mobilize all our resources to bring the war to an early end. The best and perhaps only way to preserve our civilization is to defeat Putin as soon as possible. That’s the bottom line,” said financier George Soros at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.