Analysis |

Ukraine War: Battle for Luhansk Proves Russia Can Only Make Small Gains

In slow-moving, often static warfare, Russia’s ability to deploy hundreds of rocket launchers, along with airborne strikes, creates a disparity in firepower that Ukraine simply can't bridge

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Pro-Russian troops ride an infantry fighting vehicle in the city of Lysychansk, Ukraine, on Monday.
Pro-Russian troops ride an infantry fighting vehicle in the city of Lysychansk, Ukraine, on Monday.Credit: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/ REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Reports during the weekend that Russian forces had captured the city of Lysychansk and with it completed their conquest of the entire Luhansk region were met with tight-lipped responses from the Ukrainian government. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that “we’re gradually moving forward in the Kharkiv region, in the Kherson region, there will be a day in which we will say the same of the Donbas.”

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Without saying it in so many words, Zelenskyy was basically admitting that in the war of attrition in eastern Ukraine, Russia still holds the key numerical advantage in artillery which will continue to allow it to make slow, gradual progress in the Donbas for the foreseeable future, and that while the Ukrainians have regained some territory and may even be poised to take back the city of Kherson, their army has not yet been capable of accumulating the necessary armed formations for a major counteroffensive.

But before focusing on the Ukrainian shortcomings, it is important not to exaggerate the Russian achievement. It has taken their forces 130 days of war in Ukraine to reach one of their original key objectives – taking control of all of Luhansk, where since 2014 they have maintained a large presence of pro-Russian separatists. The focus on the Luhansk and Donetsk regions has been going on for over half of this time, since their push on Kyiv failed miserably in March and April. And while they have finally taken over all of Luhansk, they did not trap inside Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk the experienced Ukrainian units, which largely managed to retreat ahead of time. They are likely to focus now on doing the same in the Donetsk region, where their efforts so far have been less successful and they only control about half the territory.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson during a meeting in Kyiv, on Monday.Credit: STRINGER / UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / AFP

The battle for Luhansk proves that Russia can only make relatively small gains, and that is when it focuses most of its resources and firepower on a limited section of the long battlefront, particularly on enclaves where exhausted Ukrainian soldiers have been holding out for more than four months. It isn’t about to get easier for the Russian forces, but they have found the main weakness of the Ukraine military.

In slow-moving, often static warfare, Russia’s ability to deploy hundreds of rocket launchers, along with airborne strikes, creates a disparity in firepower that Ukraine simply cannot bridge. Even with the recent supply of dozens of missile launchers and howitzer cannons from the stockpiles of U.S. and European armies, the gap remains vastly in Russia’s favor. The effectiveness of these Western systems is also limited by the fact that Ukrainian soldiers must first learn how to use them. In addition, the fact that they are now fielding a wide variety of artillery batteries using different types of munitions, all needing their own spare parts, is creating a logistical headache. At the same time, the stockpiles of shells for the Soviet-era artillery that the Ukrainians have been using since the beginning of the war are growing dangerously low and there are limited sources for replenishing them.

This could potentially be a problem also for the Russian army, which is making much more widespread use of its artillery. The level of ammunition stores it retains from Soviet times and the ability of Russian industry to manufacture new shells is still not fully clear to Western intelligence. There are still analysts who believe that by the end of the summer Russia could run out of rockets, but there is no sign of that happening yet.

Both sides are in a race to build up new armored formations that could be sent into battle for a major game-changing push. Russia, which has lost a large proportion of its tanks and struggles to replenish its leading armored brigades, badly mauled in the fighting so far, is thought to be at a disadvantage here. But the Ukrainian losses have been significant as well and the reported attempts to build up a new armored division, partly using captured Russian tanks and those that have been supplied by former Warsaw Pact NATO members, is also taking time. It also isn’t clear where the Ukrainians will launch their counteroffensive, if and when – would they try to recapture parts of the Donbas or prefer to focus on retaking Kherson? Liberating the first major city captured by Russia would give them a major moral boost and would also make it more difficult for the Russians to move forces through Crimea.

Smoke and dirt rise from the city of Severodonetsk during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian troops at the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas in June.Credit: ARIS MESSINIS / AFP

Until either Russia or Ukraine manages to mobilize enough troops for a big push, this will remain a war of attrition decided mainly by the ability of either side to supply its units in the field with sufficient ammunition to keep on firing. The replacement last month of Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, who was appointed only two months earlier to command all the Russian troops fighting in Ukraine, by Deputy Defense Minister Gennady Zhidko, is an indication of how crucial the resources issue is to the war. The Russian Duma is expected to pass an amendment to the defense laws that will give the military wartime powers to mobilize additional personnel and force businesses to take its orders, in a “special military operation” as well. For political reasons the Kremlin is still anxious that this not be considered an official war, but for its logistical purposes the army needs war resources. But even with those powers, it remains unclear whether the Russian army can find those additional troops or that the factories can manufacture the munitions on time.

Ukraine’s situation is even more dire. Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Switzerland Monday that Ukraine is spending 130 billion hryvnia ($4.5 billion) each month on its army, compared to an annual military budget of nearly 156 billion hryvnia before the way. Despite massive loans, Ukraine cannot keep this up for much longer, especially when the country’s major source of foreign income, agricultural exports, are at one-third of their normal level, due to the war and the Russian blockade. Shmyhal estimated that Ukraine’s economy would need $750 billion to recover, but that’s assuming that it can even begin the recovery process.

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