To Have & Not To Hold – The Final Fight For Luhansk (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #135)

The Russian military has a long list of failures since their invasion of Ukraine began on February 24th. We are almost five months removed from that dreadful moment when the world learned first-hand what many already knew, that Vladimir Putin would stop at nothing to ensure Ukraine stayed under the Russian sphere of influence. This meant sending in the world’s second largest military for what Putin promised would be a “special military operation.” What he meant at the time was a short military campaign where the fighting was to last less than a week and teach Ukrainians who was really the boss. The campaign was to be such a lark that Putin did not even bother to call it a war. The operation has certainly turned out to be very special, but not in the way Putin or anyone else in Russia imagined. The Russian forces have suffered a series of humiliating losses, beginning with the Battle of Kyiv, continuing with the loss of the Moskva, the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, to a nation that basically has no navy and most recently the loss of Snake Island, a spit of forlorn rock that proved to be Russia’s kryptonite on numerous occasions.  

Contested ground – Map of the front lines in Luhansk & Donetsk provinces

The only way for the Russia military to overcome their poor performance in Ukraine has been to find some degree of success that Putin can call a victory. Whether it is an actual victory or not hardly matters. If Putin can spin some sort of success out of half-truths, he will then claim that Russia is winning the war. Mitigating the litany of Russian military failures is the goal. To that end, the Russian offensive in the Donbas has gone a long way in helping change the narrative. The Russians reportedly, took control of Luhansk province after the city of Lysychansk fell during the first week of July. Even western media outlets which loathe the Russian invasion, reported it as a success. The tide was said to be turning against the outgunned Ukrainian forces. The inevitable had occurred. It would not be long before the entire Donbas region was occupied by Russia. A funny thing happened on the way to Russia’s conquest of the Donbas, it turns out that they still do not have total control of the Luhansk province.

Toeholds – Bilohorivka and Verkhnokamianka
In warfare, words such as pocket and toehold are sometimes used as part of battlefield terminology. They define a concentration of forces in a specific area. For several months in the Donbas, the Russians worked their way westward in Luhansk province trying to surround a pocket of Ukrainian forces by moving around their flanks. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians put up a ferocious fight to hold the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. They were finally forced to withdrawal rather than risk capture. When Ukrainians abandoned Lysychansk, the Russian occupation of Luhansk was complete except for a couple of afterthoughts that allowed the Ukrainians to still hold on to a tiny portion of Luhansk province. Along the administrative border that divides the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, the small villages of Bilohorivka and Verkhnokamianka are all that has kept the Russians from taking all of Luhansk. This is not for their want of trying. At one point, the Russians managed to raise a flag over the administrative building for Bilohorivka. Their presence did not last, as Ukrainian forces managed to push them out again. They have been back several times, only to get pushed out once again.

Going down – Destroyed Russian armored vehicle at attempted river crossing near Bilohorivka

What makes tiny places like Bilohorivka and Verkhnokamianka so important? They are examples of how symbolism can sometimes be more important than strategy in a war. Besides being inside an administrative boundary, the two villages have little to recommend them to anyone other than their inhabitants. They were either the first or last stops for those crossing into or out of Luhansk province. Combined, the two villages only have about a thousand inhabitants. Both are pass through places. The kind of forgettable villages that dot the countryside in Ukraine. During times of peace, these villages are quaint reminders of the persistence of rural life on the vast steppe that stretches for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. Only amid a war, where Ukrainian and Russian armed forces fight for every inch of territory do Bilohorivka and Verkhnokamianka rise out of obscurity.

Access Denied – Lost In Luhansk
During the first few days of July, the Russians announced that they had occupied the entirety of Luhansk province. Like so many other things in this war, any statement from Russia should be met with skepticism. At Bilohorivka and Verkhnokamianka, they are still fighting for control with Ukrainian forces. Denying the Russians control over a small part of Luhansk is a victory. How can the Russians take Donetsk province when they still have not managed to finish the job in Luhansk? The more forces the Russians commit to securing small villages, the less they will have to go on the offensive in Donetsk. Reports state that the Russians keep trying to take the villages only to be repelled. Of the two, Verkhnokamianka is the more important target. It is located astride a highway that runs southwestward from Sievierodonetsk to Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk that the Russians have as one of their next objectives. The longer that Ukrainian forces hold out in Verkhnokamianka, the longer it will take the Russian to advance on Bakhmut.

Fighting back – Ukrainian forces firing artillery in the Donbas region

Russia will probably occupy all of Luhansk province soon. Then again, the same was expected of them two weeks ago when they occupied Lysychansk. The constant resistance the Russians face has eroded their forces. Intelligence estimates state that they have lost 30% of their forces fighting in Ukraine. This bodes ill for their campaign in Donetsk. Because Vladimir Putin still has not declared martial law, which would trigger a full-scale mobilization, Russia’s ground forces are running low. Sustaining high casualty rates for incremental gains is a costly strategy, one that has taken a toll on Russian troop levels. The Russian’s greatest advantage continues to be in artillery. They have bombed large swathes of the Donbas into oblivion. This creeping barrage has worked, but they still need boots on the ground to secure villages such as Bilohorivka and Verkhnokamianka. Taking those two villages has already proved extremely difficult, holding them will be even more so. The same could be said for all their other gains in this war.

Click here for: Reordering European Security – The Ukraine-Russia War Changes Everything (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #136)

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