It took weeks of fierce fighting, countless casualties and relentless bombing to get the exhausted Ukrainian defenders of Sheverodonetsk ordered to evacuate its burning ruins.
“It does not make sense to stay in positions that have been disbanded for many months just to stay there,” Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of the wider region, told Ukrainian television on Friday.
With a reported 90% of the industrial city buildings damaged, with most of its estimated 100,000 inhabitants long gone and of limited strategic value beyond an extensive chemical plant, Severodonetsk does not look like a grand prize, he said. Reuters.
But its occupation is likely to be hailed by Russia as proof that its shift from early and unsuccessful “lightning war” attempts to a much slower offensive based more on long-range bombing is paying off.
Sheverodonetsk will be the largest Ukrainian city occupied by Russia since occupying the port of Mariupol last month.
“Our army has changed tactics,” said a Russian government official. “They know how to act now. Yes, it is slow, but the strategy works and means much less losses,” said the official, who declined to be named because he has no authority to speak on the matter.
Konrad Muzyka, a Polish-based military analyst, said the change in tactics meant Moscow could deploy fewer troops in attacks amid unconfirmed Western reports that Russia was facing manpower problems. “Whatever they did, it worked out for them,” Muzyka said.
“Another thing is that we do not know what is happening to the Ukrainians – their manpower, the losses and so on. From their own point of view officially, everything is rosy. But it certainly is not.”
Moscow calls its invasion, which began on February 24, a “special military operation” to liberate territories controlled by Ukrainian nationalists, who it says are hostile to Russian-speakers and intend to include Kyiv in NATO, a a move that Russia says it cannot accept.
The West and Ukraine accuse Russia of waging an unwarranted offensive war to stop Kiev’s legitimate western deviation, and accuse the Kremlin of trying to rebuild parts of the Russian Empire.
Ukrainian analysts say Kyiv is forcing Russia to pay a high price for its slow progress.
The length of time Sheverodonetsk’s defenders have endured has slowed Russian efforts elsewhere and absorbed Moscow’s finite resources, they say.
“Our forces were forced to withdraw and make a regular retreat because there was virtually nothing left to defend,” said Oleksander Musiyenko, a Kyiv-based military analyst.
“There was no city left there and, secondly, we could not allow them (the Ukrainian forces) to encircle. Everything could have been much worse if the Russian troops had managed to occupy Sheverodonetsk within a day three weeks ago.” , he said.
A Moscow-based military analyst who declined to be named, citing Russia’s wartime censorship laws, compared the fighting around Sheverodonetsk to World War I, saying Russian forces had advanced only about 100 meters. per day in the last month.
Russia’s goals at this point in the conflict were less to gain ground, he said, and more to inflict maximum losses.
“Russia’s strategy is an approach of World War I, that is, to break your opponents. It could work – there are some indications that the morale of the Ukrainians is a problem,” he said.
If Russia appears to be pursuing the same tactic, its offensive against Ukraine, which it says has just received new US long-range weapons designed to help it deal with Russian artillery, could be prolonged. .
Russia continues to face significant obstacles in its campaign to take control of Donbass, as Ukraine continues to control almost half of the Donetsk region, the other target area, including the heavily fortified cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, which are also the two largest from Siverdonetsk.
Russia’s attention is now likely to turn quickly to the city of Lysichansk on the opposite bank of the river, where Ukrainian forces have strongholds, the last large part of the uncontrolled Luhansk region.
“We need to understand that (Russia) is likely to try to attack the city from two or three sides,” Musiyenko said.