Forget whoever told you there’s a stalemate in the Ukraine war right now. Mariupol is gone, but a hot fight is raging through eastern Ukraine. It’s Russian artillery versus Ukraine’s hit-and-run counter-offensives, and at several points the battle is touch and go.
Much will depend on whether Russia can keep pushing toward the city of Kramatorsk.
You remember Kramatorsk, where the Russians hit the train station on April 9 with a single ballistic SS-21 missile strike, killing 57, including five children.
Since then, Russian forces have advanced to within about 20 miles of the city. They are even closer to Russia has forces attacking from both the north and south, pressuring cities like Syeverodonetsk. On a map, the curving Russian force position looks like a crocodile’s mouth. Let’s call it the jaws of Kramatorsk.
"The primary objective on this axis is to envelop Ukrainian forces," Britain’s Ministry of Defence warned May 13. If Russia succeeds, some of Ukraine’s best forces will be cut off from other units in the West.
It’s the highways Putin wants. He’d like to grab the major road systems and snap the jaws shut on Kramatorsk—which was the high-water mark of Russia’s 2014 offensive before Ukraine took it back. Zelenskyy needs to hold around Kramatorsk to keep alive his hopes of pushing Russia out of the east and ultimately, all of Ukraine.
Since late April, Ukraine has generated momentum by pushing Russian forces away from Kharkhiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Russia is still struggling with battlefield coordination, according to the Pentagon.
But there’s no denying Russia has made progress by taking key highway towns like Popasna, which fell May 8. Russian tactics look like World War II. The Russian army pounds each town or crossroads with artillery, then makes a frontal attack. If they move too far and fast, Ukraine’s forces strike them.
Russia’s pace is "uneven, slow, incremental, short, and small," in the Pentagon’s words May 16, but they have not stopped yet.
Despite all this, two factors prove Ukraine’s forces have the tactical ability to win.
First, U.S. and NATO artillery and training are taking effect. "We do believe that the howitzers are having an impact, particularly in Kharkiv," the Pentagon said Monday.
Second, Ukraine has mastered some very sophisticated tactics. You saw the Russian tanks blown apart in the mud after attempting to cross the Donets river at Bilohorivka last week. That’s right in the crucial area east of Kramatorsk.
Now consider the tactics behind it. First, Ukrainians watched the Russians set up to cross the river. Drones provided accurate positions. Then they waited, as the first Russian forces started across, and bunched up like it was the morning rush hour. Finally, Ukraine unleashed precise artillery fire, perhaps with sub-munitions that seek and hit armor. Post-strike pictures showed dozens of Russian vehicles destroyed. Ukraine displayed excellent command and control, and it tells you why Ukraine’s forces have the edge against Russian forces on the move.
Who wins at Kramatorsk could also determine the next phase of the war.
Mariupol was no big win for Putin. Heartbreaking as the final withdrawal of the soldiers from Azovstal was, it doesn’t dent Ukraine’s growing combat power. "We hope to save the lives of our boys," President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday. "Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive."
But if Putin gets Kramatorsk, Russia’s army can take the roads from Izyum to Donetsk, lock down control in the east and consider new options. Russia has 50 Battalion Tactical Groups in the south in position for new operations to landlock Ukraine.
If Ukraine holds open the jaws of Kramatorsk, Ukraine can push Russia out of Izyum and start taking back other towns along the 100-mile front. Zelenskyy’s new total victory plan will eventually require Ukraine to increase the pressure, such as by striking Russian military targets in Crimea, for example. It will be much harder to win if Kramatorsk falls.
Sadly, Putin has enough oil money to keep up the slow, ugly fight into summer. Ukraine may need two or three more big U.S. aid packages and help from NATO to keep going.
Russia’s illegal invasion has brought evil back to Europe. That’s why Sweden is poised to give up over 200 years of neutrality and join NATO. Sweden hasn’t fought a war or joined an alliance since 1814, the era of Napoleon’s wars. Russia’s brutality and threats have changed all that.
And it’s not just Putin, who is, obviously, far crazier than we knew. The war in Ukraine daily reveals the sheer barbarism among Russia’s generals.
Can you believe President Joe Biden ever thought sanctions would stop the bleeding?