Russia’s capture of the strategic city of Lysychansk means the front line in Ukraine’s east will shift as Russian forces regroup before pushing further south and west, military analysts and Ukrainian officers said Sunday, ensuring that the next phase of the battle will be just as bloody as the last.
Moscow now effectively has full control of Luhansk Province, meaning that its forces can focus on Donetsk to the southwest. Russia-backed separatists set up breakaway republics in both provinces in 2014 and have been fighting Ukrainian troops ever since.
Their battle was effectively at a stalemate — albeit one with sporadic and deadly shelling along the roughly 250-mile front line — until Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The breakaway territories have proved useful for resupplying Russian offensives in the region ever since. The separatists also have provided fighters to support Russian offensives and help hold captured towns in Ukraine’s east and south as Russian forces advanced.
While Ukrainian forces have made small tactical gains in the last month around the cities of Kharkiv, in the east, and Kherson in the south, Russia still maintains a significant foothold in both regions. And Russia’s control of the eastern city of Izium will play heavily into the next phase of its military campaign in the Donbas.
To take Lysychansk and its neighboring city of Sievierodonetsk, Russian forces moved in from the north, east and west and created a pocket of territory that became indefensible toward the end of June. Now those Russian forces are in a position to attempt a similar maneuver on other Ukrainian-held cities in the coming months.
Military experts believe they will reconstitute their casualty-degraded units before attacking the Ukrainian military’s strategic hub in the smaller city of Bahkmut to the south. In short, Russia’s likely strategy will be to create another pocket around the bigger industrial cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
Ukrainian military officials believe the next offensive will come from the direction of Popasna in the east toward Bahkmut while northern and western Russian lines simply hold Ukranian’s forces there in place.
Both sides have lost thousands of troops, armored vehicles and artillery pieces. Despite the influx of Western weapons, the Ukrainians are still outgunned. Russian forces, following their recent gains around Lysychansk, are undoubtedly exhausted. But Moscow’s strategy of wearing away Ukraine’s forces with days of artillery barrages followed by small advances shows no sign of letting up.
Natalia Yermak contributed reporting from Lviv.