In the Donbass, the invasion of the Luhansk region appears to have become more evident in the last hours. Ukraine’s defense has been struggling for several days in the face of an intense Russian offensive. President Zelensky said that Russian forces had turned Donbass into an inferno. Interview with Julian Theron, teacher of conflict and international security at the Institute of Political Science.
Question: In the Donbass region, if the city of Severodonetsk falls, will this be the beginning of the victory of Russia?
Julian Theron : Not really, because even if it is indeed an advance infamous because this city has been the target of the Russian push for so long, it is also the point of Ukrainian resistance against the Russian advance. But basically, the fall of this region will not completely change the situation in eastern Ukraine.
Why are the twin cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, in the heart of Donbass, so important ?
They are on the edge of Ukrainian-controlled territory, an area that forms a kind of triangle that Russia is trying to seal off. You try to close it with multiple triangles somehow. First, I tried to close a large triangle between Kharkiv and Zaporizhia. It is trying to cordon off the areas where the Ukrainians are subject to it, a fairly classic technique dating back to the Soviet era. Indeed, this progress is a front-line fight at the tip of the triangle. So it is an important dimension, but it does not mean that Ukraine is losing the war, even if the battle is difficult.
What are the weaknesses of the Ukrainians in this region?
The first weakness is what is considered the military bloc. Indeed, even if the Ukrainians used techniques and tactics that make it possible to circumvent the asymmetry, there is already an asymmetry in numbers, between Ukrainian and Russian soldiers, especially with regard to the battalions participating in the Donbass.
The Russians regularly attack from the rear, so there are also logistical questions for the Ukrainians. There is also the question of armaments, Westerners give a lot of them, and heavy weapons too. But it is still necessary to send it and be able to quickly train the Ukrainians to deal with certain systems of weapons. So these are all very big issues.
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However, it may be noted that many of the territorial defense battalions, the army-trained civilians who are now fully capable of mastering, are engaged in the front. This was especially the case in Kharkiv as well as in the east, which meant that all the population plunged into the heart of the fighting and this is still a guarantee of success. There is certainly current progress, but that does not predict the outcome of the fight in general.
And what are the Russians?
Their number is still about the same as at the beginning. At one time it was believed that the appointment of General Dvornikov would fundamentally change the situation by unifying the front, improving the so-called “command and control” systems, that is, command and control forces, or even developing a number of more technological systems.
And in fact, we know that it’s not working well, that the forces are still lacking in motivation, that they are still under fire, especially in this area. Dozens of Russian tanks were bombarded with artillery, so they are also subject to the technological level of Western weapons systems. So we can see that many elements of the weakness of the Russian army that we observed at the beginning of the conflict are still present today.
The Russian Defense Minister said that troops and separatist forces from Moscow had taken control of almost all of Luhansk region, one of the two Donbass regions. If Sievierodonetsk fell, would this claim be true?
Luhansk was the area where the Russians had more difficulty advancing than in Donetsk, and that is exactly what they are trying to do by descending to Kramatorsk. In fact, they haven’t gotten to the area yet. But this could effectively allow Moscow to explain to the Russian people that they “secured” the Donbass, and thus could stop the conflict.
In fact, the Russian army has difficulty in the vicinity of Kharkiv and also in the south, near Kherson and Zaporizhia. As they were retreating, this would put an end to the difficulties that the Russians might have in going beyond Severodonetsk.
Between Kramatorsk and the Twin Cities, there are a lot of ghost towns. If Sievierodonetsk falls, can the rest fall so quickly?
It depends. There may be redistributions. It is a matter of progress. And even in the open country, it is not certain that progress will be so easy, in terms of artillery bombardment and the use of drones, for example. So it is not necessarily a street that will open up to take the whole of eastern Ukraine.
Where is the Russian advance a little further north, in the Kharkiv region? Are there obstacles for the Russians?
The advance of Ukrainian forces in the north, towards Kharkiv, threatens Russia’s push to the south, because the Ukrainians are in a position to take them from Izyum’s rear. You have to be careful, kyiv in fact, in saying that you shouldn’t expect much from the already massively amassed Ukrainian troops.
Effectively, however, they are in a position to threaten the regression towards southern Izyum by taking the opposite direction, i.e. the same encirclement technique as the Russians. And this is not surprising, because in the days of the Red Army, senior Ukrainian officers learned exactly the same methods. So we can see that Russia can get stuck in its own game north of Izium.