Two months ago, I wrote this overview of the Ukrainian front lines. The macro view remains mostly unchanged, and I’d be shocked if more than a hundred square kilometers of net territory has changed hands. Russia has advance a little around Bakhmut, and Ukraine has advanced a little around Kreminna and Svatove.
Russia’s weird push in Zaporizhzhia oblast is certainly new, situated between the “Toward Melitopol” and “Pavlivka/Vuhledar” flags. I had forgotten about Vuhledar. Digging around a little confirms it, other than for some minor positional battles, Russia appears to have surrendered that approach after taking Pavlivka at horrendous cost. Vuhledar sits on higher ground, and Russia couldn’t overcome it. I’ll need to update this map next time I talk about the bigger picture.
What hasn’t changed is that Ukraine’s sole offensive focus remains in the Kreminna and Svatove directions. I wrote about Ukraine’s options back in early December, and as of now, it’s those northern approaches that are getting the attention.
There is an important strategic purpose to Kreminna/Svatove/Starobilsk. Kreminna cuts supplies to Svatove from the south, and allows Ukrainian forces to threaten Svatove from that direction. Svatove is the gateway to Starobilsk. Starobilsk is the rail and truck hub of supplies from Belgorod, Russia, feeding Russia’s war machine in Ukraine.
Without Starobilsk, Russia can still supply their forces from the east, but it stresses an already stressed logistical system, and makes it more vulnerable to Ukrainian sabotage and attack.
While some may question Belgorod’s remaining importance in Russia’s existing logistical chain, nothing confirms it more than Ukraine’s focus on Svatove and Kreminna—and Russia’s fierce defense of it. Both sides know this matters. And in the last few days, things have shifted a bit.
On January 16, Ukraine liberated Novoselivs’ke. Some Ukrainian accounts were ecstatic in celebration. Russians laughed it off, the way we’ve laughed off some of Russia’s gains around Bakhmut. How could it be of any real value? Its pre-war population was 738 people. It was barely a village.
Look at it, it’s eight blocks! Who cares who holds it!
Yet this seemingly insignificant plot of rubble has gone back and forth between Russia and Ukraine several times since last October. Ukraine has fought bitterly for it, and Russia has responded in kind, stubbornly refusing to surrender it. So why does it matter? Look at a topographical map:
Novoselivs’ke sits on high ground overlooking Kuzemivka. Indeed, that rail line and station is reportedly in Ukrainian hands, and the friendlies can rain tank, mortar, and artillery fire down into the valley.
Russian forces have reportedly retreated from western Kuzemivka, and are being reinforced at prepared defensive positions on the town’s eastern edge. So the next question, logically, is “why do we care about Kuzemivka”? Let’s pull out a little…
The red marker is on Novoselivs’ke. Kuzemivka to its right (to the east). Svatove, the big goal, is on the bottom-right of the map. Liberating Kuzemivka has
three four benefits:
- It opens up the approach to the northeast, toward Nauhol’ne and Nyzhnia Duvanka 18 kilometers away (or around 11 miles). Ukraine needs to move up that route in order to cut off Svatove’s northern supply route, and to help surround Svatove from the north. As Russian nationalist war correspondent WarGonzo noted, “This is a dangerous direction for Russian troops. There are no settlements beyond this village, a fairly open area. Quite a convenient way to Svatovo from the northwest.”
- It relieves pressure on the P07 highway, which is Ukriane’s lifeline from Kupiansk. This part of the front is poor in roads, thus supplying the Ukrainian advance is likely fraught with hazard.
- The high ground at Novoselivs’ke threatens additional Russian positions in the area, leaving the entire Russian presence untenable. Odds are good that if Russia can’t dislodge the Ukrainian position at Novoselivs’ke in the next couple of weeks, that they will retreat to their next set of defensive positions. It does them no good to sit pinned down under relentless artillery barrage.
- Russia is going to have to divert resources from Bakhmut area, lest it lose its critical northern supply line. This could very well take pressure off Bakhmut’s defense, and maybe even allow Ukraine to push back recent Russian gains.
Obviously, none of this is a dramatic sweep. It’s the kind of grinding, attritional warfare that has now bogged down both sides. This is why the United States is reportedly leaning on Ukraine to slow their roll while they get their new armored brigades, with Western kit and doctrinal training, up and running. That’s a good three months, after which they can be unleashed (if General Mud’s spring returns cooperates...).
As I worked on this update, Ukrainian sources claimed Russia unsuccessfully assaulted Novoselivs’ke with Spetsnaz forces—they're equivalent to our special forces. If true, would again show just how important both sides treat this tiny speck on a map. Meanwhile, Ukrainian artillery doesn’t just pound Russian positions in Kuzemivka, but the supply routes to its east. Ukraine is really suggesting, in the strongest terms possible, that Russia get the hell out of Dodge.
This is at Kuzemivka’s main road out:
Russian milblogger Rybar says Kuzemivka is no-man’s land:
These hapless Russians sure were caught in that no-man’s land:
These video from five days ago shows Russian infantry fleeing just east of the train station, on the edge of Novoselivs’ke:
That was right here:
Is any of this earth shattering? Not really, absent a total collapse in the Russian lines. At this point, I’d rathe that highly unlikely. Still, Ukraine may end up waiting for all that Western gear for its next major push, but that doesn’t mean it’s sitting on its hands, letting Russia take all the initiative.
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