The Russians throw everything they have at a Ukrainian garrison

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With a thunderous artillery barrage, the Russian army launched its latest offensive in Ukraine on Thursday.

Much of what is left of the Russian army – around 106 understrength battalion tactical groups, down from 125 full-strength BTGs at the start of the war in late February –attacked from the north and west of Popasna in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.

The ultimate target is obvious. “Russian troops are trying to besiege and destroy Severodonetsk”, Ukrainian Armed Forces tweeted Thursday.

Popasna is the location of Russian forces on the southern side of the Severodonetsk Pocket, an area under Ukrainian control that extends west from the city – pre-war population, 100,000 – and is surrounded to the north, to the east and south by areas under Russian control and separatist control.

The roughly three Ukrainian brigades in and around Severodonetsk number 5,000 or more soldiers. They dug and destroyed bridges leading to the city. Yet they are vulnerable.

A single main road passes through the town of Bakhmut through the pocket to Severodonetsk. It was along this road that the main Ukrainian army brought supplies to the city garrison.

The Russian push west from Popasna could target Bakhmut, 13 miles away. The northern thrust could attempt to complete the encirclement of Severodonetsk, 17 miles away.

It is fair to say that the Kremlin has concentrated its best remaining forces along the Popasna axis for this offensive. Airborne units, possibly reinforced with Chechen troops and Wagner Group mercenaries, fight alongside armored units with the latest T-90 tanks and BMP-T combat vehicles.

As the Russian army suffered many casualties after attempting to cross Ukraine on three fronts – north, east and south – and ultimately abandoned the northern front, the Battle of Severodonetsk may represent Moscow’s best opportunity to a short-term victory.

A victory that could allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare a kind of victory in Ukraine. Even if this victory is small compared to the Kremlin’s initial goal of capturing kyiv, destroying the Ukrainian armed forces and cutting Ukraine off from the sea.

What happens over the next few days could be critical and should set the conditions for the next few weeks of fighting. If the Russians cut the road through Bakhmut and surrounded Severodonetsk, the ensuing urban fighting could be brutal for the Ukrainian garrison.

They would eventually run out of food, fuel, and ammunition. Barring a breakthrough by Ukrainian forces out of the pocket, the fall of Severodonetsk might be only a matter of time under these circumstances. kyiv could lose several thousand soldiers and an important strongpoint in the Donbass.

If the Russians to fail to cut the road, they might end up spending their last reserves of combat strength trying to starve out a small portion of the Ukrainian army in a small town.

The Russian offensive is already partially compromised. The original plan was apparently to attack from the north and south. But to do this, the Russian battalions had to erect pontoon bridges over the Seversky Donets River, northwest of Severodonetsk.

Earlier this month, Ukrainian artillery captured an entire brigade on the banks and wiped it out, destroying most of two BTGs and killing up to 400 Russians. If the Russian army completes its encirclement, it will have to be from the south.

The situation is fluid. As recently as Wednesday, the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff noted the Russian attacks from Popasna, but insisted the Russians “did not succeed”. But the main assault apparently began on Thursday.

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