The conflict in Ukraine increasingly resembles two different wars, as the Ukraine-leaning and Russia-leaning sources continue to disagree over key events and interpretations.
In this summary of the past 10 days, we diverge from the usual day-by-day reporting by providing general analysis on the important questions regarding what’s happened in the war over the past two weeks.
We have repeatedly identified a cornerstone of the Ukraine-leaning narrative as highly suspect. Namely, the assumption that Russia is engaged in an all-out attack across the East Donbas front, as opposed to a more conservative, artillery-oriented offensive.
This is an important distinction. Gradual territorial advances under the first strategy are a sign of failure and imply large losses, whereas gradual advances under the second strategy are a sign of success.
In challenging the mainstream assertion of Western media and Ukraine-leaning OSINT (Open Source INTelligence), we cite numerous pre-war intelligence assessments of Russian military composition and doctrine, such as those from RUSI. While Russia did not appear to conform to this strategy during the first phase of the conflict, the evidence suggests that they have reverted to orthodox operations during the second phase, following the withdrawal from Kiev on 30th March.
The Importance of East Donbas
Another diversion in the narrative is the application of certain areas of the conflict with exaggerated or downplayed significance.
Broadly speaking, the Ukraine conflict on the ground may be separated into four separate fronts: the Kherson-Mykolaiv front, the Zaporizhzhia front, the East Donbas front, and the Kharkiv front. There are of course other areas of interest, such as Odessa, Snake Island, the Crimea, and so on — but ground forces are concentrated along these four fronts.
The first two of these fronts have remained largely static over the past four weeks. Both sides of the Ukraine narrative have alleged significant losses on the part of their opponent along the Zaporizhzhia front, particularly around Huliaipole.
In Kharkiv, the Ukrainians have made limited advances, clearing a perimeter around the city. In East Donbas, the Russians have made limited advances, securing most of the north bank of the Sieversky Donets river (a major strategic barrier).
Therefore, Ukraine-leaning sources emphasise the gains in Kharkiv (while excusing losses in East Donbas). Russia-leaning sources do the opposite: they emphasise gains in East Donbas, while excusing losses in Kharkiv.
While it is difficult from the outside to attribute due significance to these regions, we find the Russia-leaning narrative to be more compelling in certain respects at present. One reason is that the intensity of combat is much, much higher in the East Donbas region than the Kharkiv perimeter. We can monitor this using NASA’s fire-detection satellites:
Note that many of the ‘fire’ marks have nothing to do with military action, but represent agricultural or industrial activity. The four combat fronts can however be discerned as having greater concentrations of fire, particularly the East Donbas front.
Clearly, East Donbas is subject to the greatest intensity of bombardment in the war. This does not decisively indicate the combat intensity here, since Russia possesses substantially greater long-range fire capabilities than Ukraine (MLRS, artillery, etc), and may be causing fires across this front due to indiscriminate, ineffective shelling. However, we believe this is a significant indicator of combat intensity.
Another indicator is the concentration of troops in this front. We know that the majority of Russia’s ground forces in the region are committed to actions around East Donbas, including attacks from the direction of Izyum, with a lot of manpower engaged in battles around Popasna, Rubizhne, and Sloviansk.
Finally, there is the fact that ‘liberation’ or ‘denazification’ of the East Donbas region is a stated war aim of the Russian Federation. Having been subject to a proxy war for 8 years between Ukraine and Russia, this region is heavily fortified by the Ukrainian army, and likely garrisons many troops.
To conclude: we have a large concentration of both Russian and Ukrainian manpower in a politically-important combat front which is experiencing by far the greatest severity of bombardment. It is safe to conclude that this is the most significant front, and that territorial advances here have greater importance than elsewhere in the war.
Did the Russians Cross the Sieversky Donets?
Much of the apologia emerging from Ukraine-leaning OSINT channels concerning the significance of East Donbas circulates around the following proposition:
“Ukraine is withdrawing its forces to a natural defensive barrier in the Sieviersky Donets, so Russian gains here do not have much impact on Ukrainian strategic thinking.”Some OSINT guy on the internet, probably
This narrative is thus greatly affected by the answer to the following question: have the Russians crossed the river in question?
Both sides agree that crossing attempts were made. At least 4 pontoon bridges have been identified along the river near Belohorivka, a small town on the south bank of the river.
Notably, photos of such bridges from the Ukraine-leaning side show destroyed pontoon bridges — photos emerged after the bridges were neutralised, and it is claimed that they were destroyed during setup. In addition, the time and date of these bridges has been erased, with some Russia-leaning accounts taking this to mean that the photos are of other pontoon bridges from earlier in the conflict.
Another staple of these aerial photos is the presence of numerous destroyed or submerged vehicles. Both sides claim that these are the other side’s vehicles. Ukraine appears to have used some of these crossing sites to reinforce and then evacuate its forces on the north bank, so it would not be unusual to expect destroyed Russian and Ukrainian vehicles here.
One of three things may have happened: both sides may have lost numerous vehicles fighting over these important ‘choke points’; the Ukrainians may have suffered heavy losses either withdrawing across their crossings or defending the banks against a crossing; or (as Ukraine-leaning OSINT asserts) the Russians may have lost dozens and dozens of vehicles in doomed attempts to cross the river. If either of the latter two scenarios are true, accusations of staggering military incompetence will be justly raised.
A Wikipedia page has already been written describing this ‘battle’, which claims that the Ukrainian 17th Tank Brigade destroyed an entire BTG of 80 Russian vehicles and inflicted nearly 500 casualties. This is also reported by the New York Times, and a reasonably detailed (if unverified) thread from a (purported) Ukrainian military engineering officer by the name of ‘Maxim’ emerged on May 11th to support this claim.
There is still an open question as to whether there is any significant presence of Russian forces on the south bank of the river, in the vicinity of Belohorivka. This bridgehead would present a significant disruption to an effective defence of Ukraine’s natural barrier. However, apart from ongoing fires south of the river there is little to suggest that a successful bridgehead was made.
With unconfirmed reports emerging today (day 82) that Ukraine is evacuating its administration from the city of Sieversk (south of the river), it is possible that the Russians made a successful crossing and are present in force on the south bank of the Donets. However, all that may be confirmed at present is that areas south of the river have been subject to shelling.
While Ukraine-leaning accounts were quick to report unconfirmed accounts of heavy Russian losses in Popasna, including elite PMC (mercenary) soldiers from the Wagner Group, the fall of this strategically-important town 10 days ago was greeted without much fanfare.
With the fall of Popasna, Russian forces may be able to advance northwest to cut off significant numbers of Ukrainian troops in the Lysychansk-Sievierodonetsk salient. This is arguably the second part of a ‘pincer movement’ by the Russian Army, with the other pincer being the Belohorivka crossing (if confirmed). The two towns are separated by just 32km, but enclose approximately 80km of combat front.
At the time of writing, battles are ongoing outside the tiny town of Vrubivka, 8km north of Popasna. Most of the terrain between Popasna and Belohorivka consists of lightly-inhabited countryside, interspersed with tiny towns and villages — hardly ideal terrain for a major defensive operation.
Ukraine’s Kharkiv Offensive
In more positive news for Ukraine, its ground forces have made a successful advance north and east of Kharkiv, potentially exposing a Russian salient here. According to Ukraine-leaning reports, these advances were achieved by a decisive defeat of the defending Russian forces, which suffered heavy losses and are in no fit state to fight effectively: ‘thoroughly defeated’ is the phrase used by OSINT. The counterattack made use of mechanised units, including Ukraine’s tank formations.
With little reliable information forthcoming about these operations, it remains to be seen whether the Russians here have been decisively beaten, and whether a ‘Kiev-style collapse’ is in the offing, as many OSINT accounts appear to believe. Ukrainian troops have reached or passed the former Russia-Ukraine border near Ternova, according to photos picked up by mainstream media.
Russia-leaning accounts downplay the significance of operations along this front, claiming that Russia’s defence here is elastic, and that the territory has been taken from flexible advanced units, with disproportionate losses suffered by the Ukrainian attackers. These claims are rather lacking in evidence of any kind, as yet.
Reckoning Combat Losses
Are losses in the thousands, or tens of thousands, for both sides? We suspect that the total military casualty numbers for each side are likely in the low tens of thousands, but this is a very rough estimate based on following the conflict progress rather than attempting to tally reported losses. Accounts which do attempt this tally invariably end up with comically-tall error bars. It appears that daily casualties on each front are likely in the dozens and hundreds, depending on the intensity of combat.
Is Ukraine losing hundreds of poorly-equipped conscripts on the front line? Or is Russia? Numerous accounts are posting profiles of Ukrainian soldiers killed in action, such as the following obituary of Lieutenant Denys Antipov (formerly a lecturer in Korean, but also a multi-year veteran of the Ukraine Armed Forces).
There are also repeated claims of Russian senior officers killed or wounded, a few of which are subsequently verified, while most are spurious. Ultimately there is enough verifiable footage for either side to claim that the other is suffering heavy losses and close to collapse. However, these claims are not particularly helpful in assessing the true rate of attrition for either side.
Russia is operating 250 air sorties and upwards of a dozen cruise missile launches every day. What effect is this having? These strikes can be divided into two categories; strategic and tactical. Strategic strikes target infrastructure or operations deep within Ukraine, such as silos in Odessa or rail transit hubs in Kramatorsk; or training facilities in Yavoriv or Western arms shipments using the Ukrainian road network. Tactical strikes (or close air support) focus on supporting engaged ground units by targeting the formations and fortifications they are engaged against.
Air power has made a rather underwhelming appearance in the invasino of Ukraine so far, but this is largely due to a tendency to dramatically understate the casualty figures from successful airstrikes. Ukraine still appears to have functional aviation assets, despite all the odds, and the military effect of Russia’s strikes remains difficult to properly assess.
Who is losing more, and which losses are most impactful? Given the biased nature of on-the-ground reporting and OSINT aggregation, this question is impossible to answer at present.
As this report has already reached 2,000 words, we will save further analysis for future updates (upon request). Thanks once again for reading.