Let’s start with a map overview, and then we’ll go through the options clockwise, from the top.
This is the highest value approach on the entire map.
Mark Sumner has written all week about Ukrainian advances on this line, particularly that north-south P66 highway west of Svatove and Kreminna, where the good guys are trying to clear the road’s eastern flank.
Svatove/Starobilsk and Kreminna/Severodonetsk are currently complementary efforts (Svatove and Kreminna are only 50 kilometers apart), as liberating Kreminna will open up a southern approach toward Svatove. And once Svatove is liberated, Ukraine will aim for the real prize—Starobilsk, perhaps the most strategic towns in Ukraine still under Russian occupation.
Take a look at the map, every road in northeastern Ukraine runs through Starobilsk. And that dark red line running north to south? That is the rail line from Belgorod, Russia, the aggressors’ main logistical hub for the entire war. At the moment, that rail line is out of range of all Ukrainian artillery, including HIMARS.
Starobilsk is particularly important given Ukraine’s stunningly successful destruction of the Kerch bridge rail line connecting the Russian mainland to Crimea. Russia claims the roadway will be back in service in March, but no mention of the rail portion. It appears completely dead. That means nearly all of Russia’s supplies are currently running through Starobilsk. Cut that, and Russia’s supply operation will descend into utter chaos, on top of the dysfunctional mess we already see today.
Obviously, Russia knows this very well, and it has larded up the area with conscripts and defensive entrenchments. They may be poorly trained speed bumps, but they have been effective in slowing any advances and chewing up Ukrainian ammunition stocks.
When Ukraine reaches Starobilsk, all that Russian-held red territory in northeastern Ukraine will turn liberated yellow overnight. It is mostly empty, flat agricultural steppe. It’s the Nebraska of Ukraine.
Ukraine and Russia have different offensive philosophies. Russia levels its target with artillery, sends in conscripts or Wagner ex-prisoners to probe defenses. If any Ukrainian resistance remains, too bad for that cannon fodder. They’re dead. Russia doesn’t care. They shell those defensive positions some more, and send in the next batch of fodder. Rinse, lather, repeat until nothing is left. It’s time consuming and flattens everything in the way. But it requires zero strategic thinking. Russian tsars don’t look fondly on any general with smarts, lest they start making designs on the throne.
So Russia “shapes the battlefield” by leveling it. Ukraine does so by systematically cutting supply lines until the Russian garrison has no choice but to retreat or risk entrapment. Ukraine didn’t need to shell Kherson city to pressure Russians inside it. No shots were fired inside city limits. Same with Lyman.
Ukraine is now at Kreminna’s doorstep, employing this exact same tactic (as Mark wrote a couple of days ago). It certainly feels like the last days of Russia’s Lyman operation—Ukraine systematically surrounding the town, working to isolate every road in and out of until Russia is forced to retreat in order to avoid being cut off.
This Kreminna approach is symbiotic with the broader push toward Starobilsk. With Kreminna liberated, Ukraine would cut Russia’s ability to reinforce Svatove from the south, while Ukrainian forces would be able to move up and threaten the town’s from that same southern direction. It’s all part of the same strategy—Ukraine is systematically surrounds Kreminna town, cut off all avenues of supply, and forces Russia to either retreat or be trapped, so that Ukraine can then repeat the same steps up in Svatove.
Still, there’s no doubt that success at Kreminna will put Severodonetsk back on the menu. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned this war, it’s that Ukraine really feels strongly about Severodonetsk, fiercely defending it at great cost back in June despite any real strategic value. Regardless, any push toward Severodonetsk (and neighboring Lysychansk) would be hugely abetted by cutting that rail line from Belgorod. Starobilsk is the key.
Back in summer, before Ukraine’s surprise lightning offensive in Kharkiv reshuffled the entire war, we all sat around debating where Ukraine would strike next. They were making so much noise about Kherson that it was obvious misdirection, fooling no one but Russia itself.
In late July, I took stock of the options and predicted that Ukraine was going to launch its expected counteroffensive in his direction, out of Zaporizhzhia. I was wrong, obviously, but the reasoning and value of attacking in this direction remain.
The green lines are rail lines, so yeah, it has to do with logistics.
Tokmak and Polohy are less well known, but that will change over the coming months. Of the two, Tokmak is the most important and might be among the most strategic spots on the map for Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Those green lines on the map are rail lines, and we all know how critically important those are to Russia’s logistics. They can’t function far from a railhead, lacking the trucks to move supplies and ammo and the systems to make loading and unloading fast and efficient (such as cranes and pallets).
Follow those green lines from the bottom left of the map to the bottom right, and what do you see?
There is just one rail line connecting both sides.
There is a highway that runs along that southern coast, but again, trucks aren’t helpful to Russia, not over those hundreds of kilometers. Their main way to move supplies—rail lines—all converge at Tokmak (pop. 32,000 pre-war).
So okay, Tokmak and Polohy didn’t become household names in the subsequent months. Vovchansk, Kupiansk, Izyum, and Lyman took top honors as Ukraine liberated most of Kharkiv oblast, followed by Davydiv Brid, Snihurivka, Dudchany, and Mylove in the push down in Kherson.
And of course, we’re now talking about Kreminna, Svatove, and Starobilsk more than Polohy and Tokmak. And of course, Russia has put Bakhmut, Vuhledar, Andriivka, and Pavlika on the map. But maybe now that might change?
Incidentally, this rail line is also the reason that Russia is pushing so hard at Pavlivka, to push Ukraine out of barrel artillery from one of its key rail hubs. Good thread with the details:
We’ve talked about how Ukraine “shapes the battlefield” in the past, using artillery to degrade ammunition, supply, command and control, and troop concentrations. Well, that’s exactly what’s happening in the direction right now, with near nightly HIMARS strikes in both Polohy and Tokmak. Lots of reports like this in the last week:
The claimed dead is less interesting (and likely exaggerated), than the fact that these strikes are ongoing and by all indications, massive. Indeed, Ukrainian general staff claims that Russia has evacuated its civilian and military administrations from Polohy and other towns in the area, and has ordered its collaborator civilians to do the same. All of it very similar to what we saw in Kherson oblast just before the full Russian withdrawal.
Pushing beyond Polohy and Tokmak, Berdyansk and Mariupol have strategic value as Azov Sea port cities. Mariupol has next-level symbolism, for all the obvious reasons. But functionally, cutting Russia’s precious land bridge to Crimea will make it harder to supply any defense of that peninsula (especially with the Kerch bridge rail line down). Melitopol is the Starobilsk of southern Ukraine. Liberate it, and Russia can’t supply anything for hundreds of kilometers around it. Lots of good stuff down here, but it’s also thick with Russian defensive fortifications and troops.
It was easier to find breakthrough points when Russia was struggling to maintain five axes of attack. Now that we’re essentially down to one (what Russia should’ve done all along), things are getting tougher. Russian defenses are strong in this direction.
Fun fact: Ukraine only liberated about half of Kherson oblast. The other half is on the other side of the Dnipro river. And then, south of that, there’s Crimea.
There have been reports that Russia has withdrawn from much of the territory south of the Dnipro. Ukraine even sent a dingy across the river to plant a flag on the other bank. It had fun propaganda value, but there was no liberation. Ukraine would deal with the same challenges in pushing south, that Russia faced trying to hold territory north. All the bridges are out, the river is around 1 km wide, and pontoons and barges aren’t enough to sustain a full-scale offensive. Parts of the river supposedly freeze for a month or two in the coldest stretch of winter, but you’re not moving armor across ice, I don’t think (though admittedly, my knowledge on the topic is … thin).
Nova Kakhovka, however, is intriguing. Russia has pulled its civilian and military presence from the town, likely to avoid being picked off by Ukrainian artillery. But it is of immense strategic value, as it controls Crimea’s water supply. It has another benefit—the Dnipro crossing is mostly a dam, connected by a few short stretches of bridge. It would be relatively easy to repair and use to cross. However, Russia would be less enthused about such an endeavor, and might then target the dam itself for destruction. It’s doubtful Ukraine could risk it unless 1) Russian barrel artillery was moved significantly out of range, and 2) Ukraine could spot sufficient air defenses to protect the bridge from ballistic missiles.
Thus, any Ukrainian crossing would likely need to come from elsewhere, and the logistics are just impossibly difficult at the moment. Though given how much Russia has hollowed out this area, confident that the Dnipro will protect this flank, it would be great if Ukraine found a way to make it happen.
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Election season overtime is finally winding down, so Democratic operative Joe Sudbay joins David Nir on The Downballot as a guest-host this week to recap some of the last results that have just trickled in. At the top of the list is the race for Arizona attorney general, where Democrat Kris Mayes has a 510-vote lead with all ballots counted (a mandatory recount is unlikely to change the outcome). Also on the agenda is Arizona's successful Proposition 308, which will allow students to receive financial aid regardless of immigration status.
Over in California, Democrats just took control of the boards of supervisors in two huge counties, Riverside and Orange—in the case of the latter, for the first time since 1976. Joe and David also discuss which Democratic candidates who fell just short this year they'd like to see try again in 2024, and what the GOP's very skinny House majority means for Kevin McCarthy's prospects as speaker.