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Vladimir Putin loses sight of bigger picture as Severodonetsk success comes at an enormous cost to Russia

Dominic Nicholls


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Russia fires rockets at Ukrainian troops from a multiple rocket launcher at an undisclosed location. Photo: Russian Defence Ministry press service via AP

Russia fires rockets at Ukrainian troops from a multiple rocket launcher at an undisclosed location. Photo: Russian Defence Ministry press service via AP

Russia fires rockets at Ukrainian troops from a multiple rocket launcher at an undisclosed location. Photo: Russian Defence Ministry press service via AP

The likely Russian tactical success in the Severodonetsk pocket has come at incredible cost for Vladimir Putin in terms of personnel, equipment and, possibly most importantly, time.

He will be uninterested in casualty figures. The Russian way of warfare focuses only on the result, not the price – in civilians and fighters alike – of achieving it.

The attritional grind has settled in recent weeks into a depressing pattern: Russia pounds an area with artillery; Ukrainian troops pull back; Russia sends poorly-equipped troops in to make small gains in the shattered territory; Ukraine counter attacks against the exposed troops; Russia pounds the area with artillery again... and around we go once more.

Severodonetsk and its more easily defended sister city to the west, Lysychansk – still, for now, in Ukrainian hands – are big population centres; the former with a large industrial plant.

However, they would not, in and of themselves, be considered hugely important to a master strategist. They do not control the route to anywhere very significant; they are not major political, economic or transport centres.

Why Ukraine has fought for Severodonetsk

Why did Ukraine fight for so long for a piece of territory that conferred only minimal strategic advantage?

There are two reasons. First, Kyiv must have calculated that once Putin declared – many weeks ago now after the failed invasion from the north – that the point of his pathetic invasion all along had been to “liberate” the Donbas, he would insist his army break itself to achieve that dubious honour.

As such, an advantageous situation presented itself to the Ukrainian forces that had shown themselves to be far better defenders than Russian troops had attackers.

Kyiv saw an opportunity to use its fighters in the Severodonetsk pocket as an anvil upon which Moscow’s limited remaining stock of decent equipment and fighters could be broken.

And break they did.

The hollow nature of this “victory” will be shown in the exhausted slump of Russian formations after they plant their metaphorical flag on what’s left of Severodonetsk in the coming days.

The chances of a breakout to the west, racing through the rest of Donetsk Oblast to claim the entirety of the Donbas region for Moscow, are slim to nil.

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Time favours Ukraine

The second reason why Ukraine fought so hard in this region is that, as with the venerated defenders of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Kyiv’s troops in the east were fighting a delaying battle.

Time, in the long run, probably favours Ukraine in this war: Western sanctions are starting to bite and Moscow’s limited industrial capacity, particularly when it comes to replacing sophisticated weapons, will soon come into sharp focus.

However, Ukraine will only benefit from those strategic realities if it continues to exist.

That means hanging on through the incessant Russian onslaught until the Western-supplied heavy weapons can get into the country in order to start pushing back the invaders.

Putin’s ego kept his forces in the Severodonetsk pocket.

If, instead, they had reinforced Moscow’s relative success in the south, Odessa may have been taken. Cut off from the Black Sea, a major economic lifeline, Ukraine’s viability as a functioning state would have looked incredibly shaky.

Any loss of territory to an enemy, no matter how temporary, is obviously a blow in war. But Ukraine has decided to cede tactical ground to gain strategic advantage.

In doing so it is betting – correctly, it appears – that Putin is blinkered by his obsession with ground and has ignored other, more important priorities.

That Putin is prepared to smash wave after wave of his dwindling troops onto the Ukrainian rocks shows that he is no master strategist.

That Ukraine knows when, where and for how long to keep fighting before withdrawing shows they currently have a better understanding of this war’s bigger picture. 

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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