This week has been particularly challenging in terms of reporting on the Ukraine conflict, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the divergence between pro-Western and pro-Russian narratives has been egregious in recent days, with sources presenting alternate realities that are difficult to disentangle from an outsider’s standpoint.
In previous days, the footage emerging from civilians near the front lines was able to mitigate the effect of this bias; as the war has progressed, there is both a reduction in the volume of civilian footage emerging daily, and increasing difficulty in determining whether the footage is recent.
In addition, rampant fake news and propaganda continues to emerge from the conflict. A great example of this is the claim that Russian Defence Secretary Gen. Valery Gerasimov was wounded or even killed by a Ukrainian artillery strike against a Russian command post, during his tour of the front earlier this week. Gerasimov is an extremely important figure in the Russian military and high command, giving his name to the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ of hybrid warfare that Russia has engaged in over the past few years. However, it soon emerged that he was neither killed nor wounded, and the Ukrainian strike happened hours after he had returned to Moscow. The story appears to have originated from Ukrainian media, before being amplified by uncritical Western reporters.
In a similar vein, pro-Russian sources have claimed that a senior Canadian officer by the name of Trevor Kadier was captured in Mariupol, along with a cast of military characters from various NATO countries. None of these claims has been verified or remotely substantiated, almost a week since they were first made.
As a result, allowing more time to ascertain developments in East Ukraine has allowed a more stable picture to emerge. We will present the story twice: the pro-Russian story, and the pro-Western story of the campaign this week. Finally, we present some take-away points from the two narratives that are likely to be true.
In general, the Ukrainian forces are suffering terrible losses due to Russian operations in East Donbas, with many conscript, National Guard, or ‘volkssturm’ units poorly-equipped and minimally-trained. A largely pro-Ukrainian international media fails to reflect the large casualties incurred, the scant respite available to the defenders, and the depletion of Ukrainian morale (with some units reportedly refusing to return to action after suffering casualty ratios of up to 70%, and complaining of poor supplies and leadership).
Russia has been executing a ‘shaping operation’ east of Izyum, while also pushing the front lines back in order to prevent Ukrainian shelling of Izyum town. With a large amount of men and materials concentrated in Izyum, the town is likely intended to be a jumping-off point for a large, decisive offensive against the East Donbas region. However, maintaining the flow of logistics to Izyum during such an offensive requires the occupation and clearance of territory south of the Oskol River, which has been achieved by the recent capture of Zarichne and surrounding areas. Russian sources believe that up to 1,000 Ukrainian National Guard are currently encircled south of the Oskol, in the villages of Yatskivka and Rubtsi.
In addition, Russian advances from Izyum (which continue to see heavy fighting) are in position to interdict the significant Ukrainian supply route connecting Barvinkove and Sloviansk via artillery. North of Sloviansk, the Ukrainian forces are demolishing bridges and preparing for a retreat.
Following an assault that began last week, the town of Yampil (souch of Zarichne) has been occupied by Russian forces. Ukrainian forces north of the Sieversky Donets river, who have been driven out of the town, are prevented from retreating due to the demolition of bridges and have been trapped against the river.
Russian troops have secured the city of Rubizhne after many weeks of urban fighting, and are clearing the outskirts, including Vojevodivka.
Popasna, Maryinka, Avdiivka
Russian troops are slowly grinding out an advance through these heavily-defended cities.
Rest of War
While Ukraine has been executing localised counterattacks around the city of Kharkiv, these are nowhere near as effective or impactful as Western media has been claiming. Instead, they have merely succeeded in driving back the elastic advance line of the LPR separatist forces, while incurring heavy casualties in doing so.
There has been no attempt to storm the Azovstal complex, as claimed by Western media. Instead, the industrial plant has been surrounded and subjected to intense shelling. The remaining defenders are critically short of food, water, and medicine.
Front lines between Kherson and Mykolaiv remain unchanged.
While Russia has a large concentration of troops across this region, operations in this sector have been limited.
According to Western and Ukrainian media, the Russian offensive has ‘stalled’ and Ukraine is conducting a successful counteroffensive against Russia around Kharkiv. Russia continues to experience high levels of attrition, particularly in vehicle numbers. In addition, Russian attacks against well-defended urban strongpoints in battlegrounds such as Popasna take a heavy toll on both regular infantry and elite units, including marines and PMCs (mercenaries).
Russians have withdrawn from the west of Kharkiv, blowing up bridges behind them in the face of a successful Ukrainian offensive.
Izyum and East Donbas
Ukraine continues to launch attacks against the Russian units extended from Izyum. While Russia has made progress in capturing Zarichne and Yampil, as well as severing a major rail supply route to Sievierodonetsk, this is ‘largely irrelevant to Ukrainian strategic thinking’ we are assured. The reason for this is that the lost territory is north of the Sieversky Donets river, which forms a naturally defensible fall-back position for Ukrainian units.
As a result, the Ukrainians have ‘not severely contested’ the Russian advances here, but instead inflicted ambushes on the advancing forces while gradually retreating to the river.
For the two lines of attack extending from Izyum, there has been zero progress made by the Russians over the past week, as the Ukrainians conduct an effective defence.
Ukraine has launched several counterattacks and recaptured ‘a few villages’ which have not been named.
The Ukrainians appear to have hit another Russian warship with Neptune missiles, alleged to be the frigate Admiral Makarov. The US recently admitted playing an important role in the sinking of the Moskva, by confirming the ship’s identity and location for the Ukrainians immediately before the ship was attacked. A US AWACS aircraft has been patrolling the Black Sea regularly and may have provided the same service for the Admiral Makarov.
Russia appears to be incurring fewer casualties with its more conservative Phase Two strategy in East Donbas, compared to a somewhat shambolic performance in Phase One that led to its withdrawal from Kiev and North Ukraine. In fact, the current strategy adheres with what Western observers long expected of a modern Russian war: reliance on long-range fire that renders short-medium range weapons such as infantry ATGMs less effective.
Much of the narrative-building around this conflict relies on assuming the intentions of the Russian or Ukrainian military and leadership, and thus reinterpreting events on the ground as a ‘frustration’ or ‘fulfilment’ of one side’s intentions. In reality, our knowledge of the precise intentions of each side is sketchy and can only be inferred post hoc from events on the ground.
While the Ukrainian defence has been largely effective in preventing a Russian breakthrough, the cost of these operations is not yet clear. Ultimately, in a war of this nature, each side’s narrative will be justified or refuted by the losses on the ground, which are impossible to estimate from the scattered footage and one-sided reports that are currently available.