The Russian offensive in the Donbas was to end on May 9, 2022, with the capture of the entirety of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. They had to say goodbye to some of their prey.
The Russian offensive in the Donbas was to end on May 9, 2022, with the capture of the entirety of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. May 9 is approaching – only 2023 – and the Russians are not much further in the Donbas than they were a year ago. They had to say goodbye to some of their prey.
In April 2022, Vladimir Putin ordered the start of the “battle for the Donbass”. Although this term is most often used to refer to the stage of the war that ended with the capture of Lysychansk by the Russians, in Russian minds the “battle for Donbass” is still going on – that is, for over a year.
The Russian army is almost as far away from taking over the entire Ukrainian-controlled part of the Donbas as it was a year ago. So let's take a look at what the Russians have managed to achieve in Donbas during this time, and we will understand why the offensive planned for just over a month turned into bloody, intense urban fighting that has been going on for over a year now.
The location of the Ukrainian-controlled parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts was objectively difficult from the very first day of the war. Along the line of demarcation with the territory under the rule of the self-proclaimed separatist republics, fortifications were located, although expanded since 2014 and well manned by the Ukrainian army, which allowed for long-term defense against an attack directly from the east. However, the Russians attacked the Luhansk Oblast also from the north, entering it from their own territory, and the Donetsk Oblast also from the south-west (advancing from the Crimea).
In the south, the Ukrainians had to retreat from the defensive lines running from Volnovakha to Mariupol. In turn, in the north of the Donbass, it was necessary to withdraw from those located along the Donets River – from the area of the border with Russia to the outskirts of Severodonetsk. The rest of the “ATO zone” [Anti-Terrorist Operation – ed.] fortifications – running from Wuhledar in the south to Severodonetsk in the north – remained almost intact during the first weeks of the war – despite regular attacks by the Russians and separatists from the “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk.
After the Russians withdrew from the Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy oblasts in early April 2022, almost the entire burden of the war shifted to the Donbass. In the south of Ukraine – and over time also in Kharkiv Oblast – the Russian army generally went on the defensive, focusing more on retaining its territorial gains than expanding them.
In Donbass, however, offensive actions were continued and intensified by the Russians. The Russians used a huge number of howitzers and gun-howitzers (in the spring of 2022, their artillery advantage over the Ukrainians in this area of fighting reached the level of 7:1), thermobaric weapons (i.e. TOS-1A rocket launchers), and even vehicles for remote minefield clearance used in the role of siege machines to demolish entire quarters of buildings in the stormed cities of Donbass. Directly on the battlefield, successive waves of the advancing Russians and the separatists who supported them set off to attack. Day after day, sometimes several times a day, with no respite for either party.
The Russians conducted their offensive primarily in the northern part of the Donbass – initially almost exclusively in the Luhansk region. This is because on a long section of the front in the southern part of the Donbass – from Wuhledar to the western outskirts of Donetsk, the Russians have never managed to penetrate the Ukrainian defense lines deeper. This is why the battles at Wuhledar, Marijnka and Avdijewka are regularly reported from the first day of the war until today.
In May, the Russians, after very hard and long-lasting fights, managed to capture Popasna and Rubiżne, i.e. small towns located to the north (Rubiżne) and south (Popasna) of Severodonetsk and Łysyczańska. At the end of May, they began to storm Severodonetsk, finally the city was captured street by street and building by building, until the Ukrainians retreated behind the Donets - to nearby Lysychansk. There was virtually no direct assault on the latter city. The Ukrainians withdrew from Lysychansk and several villages to the west of it in the first days of July – when it became clear that the city and its immediate surroundings were already under Russian artillery fire and that the threat of encirclement of the defending Ukrainian units increased sharply.
After all, simultaneously with the gradual conquest of the northern part of the Donbass from the east, the Russians carried out activities aimed at encircling the entire part of the Donetsk oblast under Ukrainian control. The first step was the capture in mid-April, after a long-term siege, of the city of Izium, located on the Donets river, on the border of the Kharkiv and Donetsk oblasts. From there, the decisive Russian attack on Sloviansk and Kramatorsk was to start, which was to end with the Russians entering the rear of the entire Ukrainian grouping in the Donbass.
If this intention was successful for the Russians, it could mean a strategic defeat for the Ukrainians on the entire eastern front and perhaps a prelude to defeat in the war. The Russian attack on Sloviansk from the north even started – it was led by select units of the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army – but was quickly stopped by the Ukrainians on well-prepared defensive lines on the edge of the Holy Mountains National Park. Then, despite repeated attacks by the Russians, it got stuck for months on the line of the villages. In June and July, the Ukrainians also managed to stabilize the northern defense line of the Donbass along the Donets River, which was conducive to maintaining it.
This tactic – essentially a war of attrition and destruction – turned out to be effective for the Ukrainian side. Although the Ukrainians constantly suffer high losses, the Russians lose several times more people because of it. Then, in the early summer of 2022, they literally bled out. They were unable to continue to attack effectively, or even hold some of the territories they had already mastered.
The Ukrainians, on the other hand, retained the ability to launch an effective counterattack. And they took advantage of it in early September, when they launched an attack on the Russian positions near Balakliya, that is, west of Izium, with a view to further marching east towards the Luhansk Oblast and the border with the Donetsk Oblast. As a result of the Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv Oblast, which was the biggest victory of the entire war, the Russians lost control of Kupiansk, Izium and Lyman – three cities that ensured their control over the border of the Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.
Thanks to the same operation, the occupation of the entire territory of the Luhansk Oblast within its administrative borders lasted only a little over two months – from July to September 2022. The Armed Forces of Ukraine managed to re-enter the Luhansk Oblast and to this day hold part of its territory – a small but symbolically important one. It is a strip of villages west of the Kreminna-Svatovo road, stretching from the Stelmachivka area to the Makiiwka area.
Currently, therefore, the entire Russian “territorial gains” gained and maintained during the “Battle of Donbass” is a strip of land not exceeding 40 kilometers wide, covering the ruins of the cities of Kreminna, Rubizhne, Severodonetsk, Lysychansk and Popasna, as well as part of the buildings of Bakhmut, also turned into ruins. In addition, this is a specific part of the Donbass – the region's greatest wealth, i.e. valuable coal deposits, is almost absent here. When it comes to mines, the salt mines from Soledar turned out to be the biggest “loot” of the Russians. Yes, there were several important industrial plants here – such as the “Azov” plant in Severodonetsk, the refinery in Lysychansk or the wine factory in Bakhmut, but as a result of weeks of shelling and direct fighting, all of them were almost razed to the ground.
In the cities of Donbas region, single buildings remained relatively not destroyed (none of which in Popasna and Rubiżne). The fields and meadows stretching between the towns of northern Donbas are scarred with craters from tens of millions of artillery shells that have fallen there since the beginning of the war. Roads have been ripped from countless explosions, and almost every crossing over rivers, streams, and drainage ditches has been destroyed, including even the smallest bridges. In the zones of direct combat, even trees look like windbreaks, mowed down by artillery and armored vehicles. The ground is strewn with shrapnel and shell fragments - and excrement and the usual garbage that the Russians left behind in heaps wherever they happened to camp.
Russian territorial gains in northern Donbas look like one big battlefield. This is a post-apocalyptic wasteland – torn from Ukraine by force and turned into barren land. It cost the Russians some 70-80 percent of the total losses incurred so far in this war, estimated by the Pentagon at about 200,000 killed and wounded.