Ukraine Situation Report: Russian Forces Expand Hold On The Donbas

Russian forces in Ukraine have improved their ability to cooperate during large-scale attacks with “reasonably effective coordination” that has allowed for the capture of Lysychansk and, by extension, most of the Donbas, according to the U.K. Ministry of Defense’s latest assessment of the war there.  

Russia now controls “virtually all of the territory of Luhansk Oblast, allowing it to claim substantive progress against the policy objective it presented as the immediate purpose of the war, namely ‘liberating’ the Donbas,” the U.K. MoD wrote in its July 5 intelligence assessment on the conduct of the war.  

Lysychansk was situated at the center of a Ukrainian salient in the east that held out against massive Russian artillery bombardments and armored assaults for weeks. Unlike earlier in the war, Russia was able to coordinate a combined-arms assault on the pocket of resistance by at least two “groupings” of forces, the U.K. MoD said. 

Still, most Ukrainian forces have withdrawn from their stretched frontlines in the Lysychansk pocket to straighter, more defensible lines on the high ground west of the city, according to the U.K. assessment. Video emerged over the weekend showing Ukrainian troops using amphibious combat vehicles to retreat from the area around Severodonetsk, which is located near Lysychansk in the same embattled salient. 

Though Russian forces have made progress westward, there is still heavy fighting in store for parts of eastern Ukraine.

“The battle for the Donbas has been characterized by slow rates of advance and Russia’s massed employment of artillery, leveling towns and cities in the process.” the U.K. MoD said. “The fighting in Donetsk Oblast will almost certainly continue in this manner.”

A lot has happened on the ground since we last updated readers on the war’s progress. Before we get into the details, catch up on our previous rolling coverage — including confirmation that U.S. National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems or NASAMS are on their way to Ukraine — by clicking here

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Several videos have popped up online showing U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, in Ukrainian service. The systems were donated along with M30/M31 Guided Multiple-launch Rocket Systems, or GMLRS, that give outgunned Ukrainians a precision long-range artillery capability. The Ukrainian Army has named HIMARS the “long hand,” presumably because of its long range.

Another video shows Ukrainians firing HIMARS at night. Four of the wheeled launchers were given to Ukraine by the U.S. and more have been promised now that Ukrainian forces have proven their proficiency at using them in combat. Even though that doesn’t sound like many, loaded with GMLRS, they are capable, precision weapons. They can perform precision strikes within a 43-mile radius and move quickly over-prepared and semi-prepared surfaces. You can learn what the system can and can’t do in this previous piece of ours.

So pleased with HIMARS are the Ukrainians that Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov gave the U.S. a July 4th shout-out on Twitter, saying the Ukrainian people “will always remember your support in our struggle for freedom.” 

The Ukrainian Army also took to Twitter to thank Poland and the Czech Republic for sending surplus T-72 tanks, which are being put to use “for the defense of Ukraine and the whole Europe from the Russian invaders.” The two countries donated about 270 T-72s in a range of variants, most of them outfitted with Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armor for defense against rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missiles

Ukrainian forces trained their arsenals of artillery and other indirect fires on several Russian ammunition depots, which were seen burning in various videos from the Donbas over the weekend. In many cases, Russians have stashed stockpiles of artillery and tank ammunition in urban areas, likely to prevent Ukraine from firing on them. From the number of videos showing smoke billowing from residential neighborhoods, it seems the Ukrainian Army is not deterred from targeting Russian ammunition, which is thought to dwarf the number of rounds available to Ukraine. HIMARS could have been involved in some of these strikes as it can reach far deeper into Russian-held territory than standard artillery and do so with high precision.

Ukrainian artillery also struck the KaMaz Center in the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk. Video from the scene records ammunition cooking off in flames, suggesting Russians were storing ammunition at the vehicle manufacturing facility. 

Belarusian fighters were recently filmed chanting “Long live Belarus!” and “Glory to Ukraine” while firing on Russian forces with Milan anti-tank guided missiles. Belarus and its strongman president Alexander Lukashenko have deeply supported Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine, though foreign fighters from around the region have flocked to Ukraine’s aid, including Belarusians from Belarus. 

Russian forces are also being more proactive about publicizing the deployment of air defense weapons to the front lines in Ukraine, as seen in a slickly edited video showing Russians operating a Tor-M1 short-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. 

For all of its recent battlefield progress, Moscow still appears to struggle with supplying conscript troops with adequate equipment and transportation. A photo appeared online recently showing a group of troops riding in the back of a garbage truck. Though the vehicle is obviously unorthodox, it also is clearly marked with the white “Z” Russian troops use to distinguish their vehicles in the current conflict. 

Ukraine also appears to be struggling with rules governing its reserve and conscript troops, according to reporting by the Kyiv Independent, a news outlet based in the Ukrainian capital. President Volodymyr Zelensky, in one of his frequent video messages to the country, asked his military general staff not to restrict travel for drafted troops, a policy with which he does not agree, he said in the video. 

Russia has as yet failed to establish air superiority over most of Ukraine, which means aircraft like the Su-25s in the video below continue to strike opposition forces. The latest footage from the cockpit of one of the close-air-support aircraft shows them flying at a very low level over Ukrainian fields, firing rockets from launch tubes mounted under their wings. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine is trying to refine its deployment of air defenses against ongoing bombardment by Russian cruise missiles. Ukrainian media claims that six of seven Russian Kalibr cruise missiles were shot out of the sky before they could hit targets Dnipropetrovsk Oblast on July 5. 

Footage emerged of one Ukrainian SAM system intercepting what is claimed to be a Russian missile. 

Russia’s invasion has wreaked havoc on Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure, costing nearly $1 trillion in losses since the February invasion, according to Kira Rudik, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament. 

“We need to rebuild. And we can’t do it ourselves,” Rudik wrote on Twitter. “We urge our partners to help us with rebuilding right now. In addition to investments, we are asking for the weapons to win.”

On the political front, Zelensky said he recently spoke with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, thanking him for London’s recent pledge of £1 billion in security aid. The two heads of state also discussed food security concerns created by Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian grain exports from Black Sea ports

Ukraine has accused Russia of stealing grain from its ports, with its top prosecutor on July 5 asking Turkey to investigate three Russian-flagged cargo vessels. Turkish customs officials detained one such ship, the Zhibek Zholy, possibly loaded with 7,000 tons of stolen grain from the occupied city of Berdyansk. The vessel boldly sailed into the Turkish port of Karasu, where it was stopped by Turkish authorities. As much as 22 million tons of Ukrainian grain is sitting in ports on the Black Sea, according to some reports. 

In what will amount to a historic expansion of NATO — ironically fast-tracked because Russia invaded Ukraine — all 30 member nations on July 5 signed accession protocols to admit Finland and Sweden into the mutual-defense organization. 

We will continue to update this post as necessary. 

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