SOLEDAR, Ukraine – A month after Russia’s Donbas Offensive, Moscow’s forces were still looking for a breakthrough. That may have finally arrived.
On May 18, Russian troops broke through Ukrainian lines west of the city of Popasna. Russia gathered units there after the capture of the city on May 8 and prepared for a larger attack to move into the open terrain to the west. Their main objective appears to be cutting off the highway leading from Bakhmut to the cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, the last remaining Ukrainian outposts in Luhansk Oblast and the scene of fierce urban fighting for weeks.
The situation on the ground indicates that they are close to achieving this goal and that the next week will be crucial.
Even before Friday, the Pentagon still believed that Russian success was limited, with small towns and villages changing hands every day in the Donbas.
“The Russians are still way behind where we think they wanted to be when they began this revived effort in the eastern part of the country,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters.
But the sense of impending war was evident on the outskirts of Bakhmut on May 20. Checkpoints had recently been reinforced and additionally erected on the northern approaches to the city. Soldiers at the post guarding the road north tell travelers they are allowed to cross, but their safety cannot be guaranteed.
This point is immediately driven home by the van driving slowly from the north to the checkpoint. It barely moves: one of the front tires is flat and two others are completely torn, leaving the vehicle on rims. More worrisome are the bullet holes in the windshield and left side of the van, suggesting that Russian small arms were fired elsewhere.
The road itself is a no man’s land. A few Ukrainian military vehicles still use it: a T-64 main battle tank rumbles slowly forward, the lack of soldiers on the chassis (as commonly seen today) another clue that the section ahead is an active combat zone. The road has been broken by the craters of fresh shellfire – soldiers at the checkpoint confirm the road is now under direct Russian artillery fire.
This part of the road is still flanked by trees, providing at least some cover. A few miles further on, the trees break, leaving nothing but open fields in both directions. Artillery fire, always audible, is now much closer.
The town of Soledar, about seven kilometers north of Bakhmut, is almost a frontline at this point. A press officer from Ukraine’s 24th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, which is fighting in the area, confirms that Russian troops are less than three miles from the city and the road. On the outskirts of Soledar, the factory in Knauf, a huge house materials factory, has been hit by an air raid and is half destroyed. Down the road, survival is pure luck: a point poignantly illustrated by a video from an AFP photographer on May 23, as he and his team are forced to leave their vehicle and wait for the shelling that may hit maybe 100 yards away to stop before continuing.
Those few travelers who do get on the road unscathed are visibly traumatized by the experience.
Back at the Bakhmut northern checkpoint, a car stops, a white Lada full of civilians who have just defied the highway. The woman in the front seat is almost hysterical, screeching at the soldier closest to her, who tries in vain to calm her down with the words, “Don’t worry, you’re safe here now.”
An interview reveals that they have just left the town of Zolote, now almost surrounded by recent Russian advances to the northeast.
Other soldiers at the checkpoint also admit that the momentum is on the enemy’s side.
“The situation is difficult,” said Artyom, a soldier on guard. “The shelling is now very close. We are now preparing in Bakhmut,” he says.
Those preparations are visible. New trenches and earthworks are being constructed between Bakhmut and the city of Konstantinivka in the west. Near the northern suburbs of Bakhmut, concentrations of Ukrainian armor are hidden in the treeline: tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled howitzers.
That doesn’t bode well for the fate of those outposts further north. With Russian forces advancing to cut off the main supply line to Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, Ukrainian forces are now forced to rely on a single alternate route running further west.
Any further Russian advances could necessitate a complete abandonment of the two cities in Luhansk, otherwise the experienced and valuable troops there would be cut off.
Meanwhile, Russia continues its offensive across the Donbas. This week will be a decisive one for Ukraine’s prospects of preserving the region — and Russia’s chances of conquering it.
Ukraine’s military intelligence chief said in recent days that his country’s goal is to reclaim Crimea and the eastern territories occupied by Russia in 2014. But it remains unclear whether the Ukrainians — even when armed with new US artillery tubes and other Western weapons — will take such a position and avoid a diplomatic settlement.
Senior US military officials said Monday that the end state of the war will have to be determined by the Ukrainians.
“Our effort is to do everything we can to strengthen Ukraine’s hands on the battlefield and also at the negotiating table,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Pentagon reporters. “We will continue to do everything we can to ensure that they achieve their objectives. Ultimately, you know, what this looks like, what the final state looks like, will be determined by the Ukrainians, not us.”