Wednesday, February 21

Russia conquers Ukraine’s Luhansk, key eastern province, sets stage for war’s next phase

The fall of Lysychansk hands Russia control of one half of the eastern industrial heartland where its war has been focused for months.

But while Moscow may treat it as such, Ukraine’s withdrawal does not yet amount to a strategic breakthrough for Russia, Neil Melvin, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London, said.

There would need to be evidence of collapsing Ukrainian defenses and Russia quickly pushing deeper into Ukraine, Melvin added, for such a claim to have veracity. It also comes as Ukraine has been making progress elsewhere, slowly building towards a counter-offensive in the occupied south and forcing Russians from a key outpost in the Black Sea last week.

“But Ukraine has lost some territory and will need to ensure that Russia is not able to build significant momentum,” he said.

What could happen next?

Taking the whole of the Donbas, a mineral-rich region that was partially controlled by Moscow-backed separatists before the invasion, has been the Kremlin’s focus for months.

Until recent weeks, its forces have been making incremental gains behind an artillery barrage that has devastated the region’s villages and towns. But Putin has now secured perhaps his most significant military accomplishments in Ukraine to date — after a series of embarrassing setbacks early in the war.

It’s a victory that Putin can “sell” domestically to show that what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine is making progress despite reports of heavy battlefield casualties, Horowitz said. It also gives the Russian leader some breathing room to decide what to do next, and whether he wants to settle on seizing all of the Donbas or pursue a long, drawn-out war with broader aims.

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Observers say the capture of Luhansk will give Moscow a more solid base from which to launch deeper attacks into the neighboring Donetsk province.

Russian troops, including soldiers of the Chechen regiment, wave flags in front of a destroyed building in Lysychansk on Saturday. AP

“Luhansk has gone, but Russia doesn’t get the Donbas until it takes the rest of Donetsk,” Michael Clarke, professor of war studies at King’s College London, said.

Ukrainian troops are likely to withdraw toward the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk in Donetsk, where the next battle will occur, Clarke said, as they strike deeper behind Russian lines with Western-supplied weapons to attack Russian fuel and ammunition stores.

The Institute for the Study of War, a US-based military think tank, said that Russian forces will likely next advance on the city of Siversk, just 15 miles west of Lysychansk. It also said the Russians could launch more significant attacks on the cities of Slovyansk or Bakhmut.

On Sunday, heavy shelling in Slovyansk killed six people, perhaps indicating Russia’s next target.

However, Putin suggested troops that fought in Lysychansk might take a strategic pause to get rest and “increase their combat capabilities,” state news agency Tass reported.

But capturing the rest of Donetsk will be a more daunting task, according to Horowitz.

“In mid-March, Russia already controlled up to 85% of Luhansk, whereas it controls only about half of Donetsk today — and capturing the last 15% of Luhansk took months.”

That means supplies of Western arms will be key.

“Kyiv needs a constant stream of weapons and ammunition to both be able to stop the Russian advance and take the initiative,” Horowitz added. “This has become an artillery-centric war as both sides can’t afford to launch any kind of offensive without barrages of artillery first.”

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