This morning, kos wrote about the defensive line established in 2014 between the Russian occupied areas of Ukraine and the areas under control of the Ukrainian military. Russia has been trying, in little ineffective fits and starts, to get around this line and surround the Ukrainian forces that defend it. The whole massive buildup going on at Izyum is part of Russia’s effort to finally, finally pull this thorn from it’s efforts to secure all of the Donbass. If, that is, Russia can manage to move more than a single unit at a time.
This is that same story … on a smaller scale.
This is an image of two small towns in eastern Ukraine. On the west side is the town of Popasna, population 19,000 (in 2010). On the right is Pervomaisk, population 36,000. Don’t be fooled by the apparent line between the two; that’s just an artifact of the different times when satellites used by Google took images of the area. The left side was captured in the late fall of 2019, the right side in spring of the same year.
From this altitude, nothing appears to be all that unusual about these two mid-sized towns. It’s easy to pick out streets and schools, stores and churches. In the narrow space between the two, there’s nothing that would be called a serious hill and not so much as a single continuously flowing stream, much less a river. It’s just fields. Flat farm fields with a few irrigation ditches. They might as well be in the middle of Illinois. Or Indiana. Or Iowa. One of those ‘I’ states.
But distance is definitely deceiving. There’s nothing ordinary about these two little towns. And while they’ve gotten little attention so far, that two miles between them might be the center of the world.
In April of 2014, pro-Russian separatists driving Russian tanks, firing Russian weapons, and accompanied by Russian forces, captured a number of towns in Luhansk. That included both Popasna and Pervomaisk. In July, Ukrainian forces drove the separatists from the area and in August Ukraine proclaimed both towns “secured.” Only Pervomaisk didn’t seem to be quite so secure. Separatists were still present in the area, and both sides ended up with artillery planted in the middle of civilian neighborhoods, exchanging fire in a very ugly battle. By January of 2015, half the town had either fled, or died. But eventually the town was left in the control of the pro-Russian forces of the Luhansk People’s Army. It’s been that way ever since.
Meanwhile in Popasna, Ukrainian forces retook the town in June, 2014. Then pro-Russian forces took it in July. Then the pro-Ukrainian Donbas Battalion took it a couple of days later. That’s where the town has remained ever since — on the bleeding outskirts of Ukrainian control, held by a mixture of regular Ukrainian military and local territorial defense. As in Pervomaisk, a lot of the population departed. That’s probably good, because in all of what was previously a town of 20,000, there are now two functioning stores. There’s a grocery store on the map, but it’s operated by an aid agency that distributes food to local residents. Electricity is spotty, and good luck getting health care.
Now, here’s a closer look at that apparently nondescript spot of farmland between the two towns.
Can you see it? Granted, what’s special here isn’t all that visible at this scale. One thing that might be surprising is that the road that seems so clearly visible on the north edge of this image isn’t really something vehicles can travel along. Not unless they are adept at getting around:
1) Wrecks. Those light spots near the intersection southwest of the Pervomaisk nametag are mostly the remains of vehicles that were blown apart along this course.
2) Potholes. Actually, potholes from hell. There are shell craters in this road, especially west of that intersection, that could swallow a car whole.
3) Mines. That little intersection just east of the Popasna sign marks the west edge of a mine field.
Here’s a closer look at that last one.
Minefield and barriers on road near Popasna. You can bet it doesn’t stop at the edge of the pavement.
But there’s something in the fields between Popasna and Pervomaisk that’s even more special than the mine-laden road. It’s those things that look like barely visible squiggly lines running roughly north -south through the second image above. Seen from close up, they’re definitely not irrigation ditches.
Entrenchments near Popasna (left) and Pervomaisk (right)
This time the line in the middle of the image really does mean something. It’s where almost exactly one mile of space has been left out. That’s what separates the trenches on the left, dug into some low hills outside of Popasna, from the trenches on the right, which are along a slight rise on the shoulder of a road near Pervomaisk.
These are not a simple ditches. Like the trenches dug across France in World War I, these are elaborate constructions, braced by wood, intentionally non-linear to make them harder to target, and flanked by mounds of earth. Both sets of trenches have locations meant to allow armored vehicles to tuck inside for shelter. Both have gun emplacements for mortars and artillery, either connected to the trenches themselves or in the woods nearby. The Popasna line includes a number of small shelters, likely to allow soldiers to get some respite from the weather, or to act as local command posts.
With all that in mind, here is a news item from Saturday morning.
Rubizhne is about 20 miles to the north. The situation there is more difficult because the Sievierskyi-Donetsk River runs through the area. With the rain that’s been falling across eastern Ukraine in the last two weeks, that again makes bridges a premium item when it comes to moving forces. Both Sievierodonetsk and Rubizhne guard access to bridges.
When word comes that Russian forces have tried to break through at a location like Popasna, what it means—especially right now, in mud season—is that they have attempted to drive a column of vehicles up that wreck-strewn, potholed, heavily mined highway with entrenched forces firing into them from both north and south. It should be no surprise that such attacks are getting regularly repulsed. When kos talks about all the pressure along the defensive line, and Russia’s repeated failures to penetrate the existing defenses, it’s places like Popasna and Pervomaisk he’s talking about.
If you’ve ever been to a famous battlefield, one where the numbers of dead and wounded were simply hideous, odds are it was some place like this. Open fields, with little to no cover, where anyone who wants to be the aggressor has to cross a mile of grass in clear view of dug in defenders.
For eight years, pro-Russian forces have been trying to push west into Popasna. They’ve failed. Likewise, for the same eight years Ukrainian forces have wanted to take back Pervomaisk. They’ve also failed.
Keep in mind that all the images above date from 2019. You can bet that at this point both the trenches and the minefields and the lines of wrecks are all much larger.
Given a few months, when things dry, those attacks can spread out into those flat fields, with tanks and other armor racing straight toward the forces in trenches; forces that at this point you can bet are all but saturated with anti-tank missiles. What happens then? See the dates when Popasna rapidly changed hands in 2014? June. July. Those are the months when forces here won’t be confined to moving along that shot to hell road.
What happens then is anyone’s guess. But if Russia wants to take it, they’re going to have to coordinate more than a single small group of forces.
Saturday, Apr 16, 2022 · 1:31:19 PM EDT · Mark Sumner Based on the location of the 8th Army, this was in the Mykolaiv — Kherson area. Gen. Frolov may have been one of those taken by surprise when Ukrainian artillery got into place close enough to shell the Kherson airport, destroying a number of helicopters on the ground.
Saturday, Apr 16, 2022 · 2:45:12 PM EDT · Mark Sumner Two weeks ago, it seemed that Ukrainian forces were about to stroll into Kherson and reports were that Russian troops were stealing everything they could carry in preparation for running. But since then, Ukraine seems to have failed with an attack aimed at the city’s south side and the location of a prisoner exchange on Friday seemed to place the border between forces where it’s been since Russian troops pulled back from Mykolaiv.
So it’s hard to tell if this represents actual progress on the Kherson front, but it’s always nice to see more Russian equipment leave the field.
Sad Russian admirals mourn the loss of the ship Moskva
No matter what “tankie” Twitter has to say, the U.S. Department of Defense has now confirmed that the Russian missile cruiser Moskva (“Moscow”) sank after being struck by Neptune missiles fired by Ukrainian coastal defense. Honestly, the U.S. was very likely aware of this from before the moment when the missiles struck home, because even if Ukraine controlled the Bayraktar drone that distracted the Moskva’s single radar, someone with very sophisticated equipment (like *cough* a U.S. AWACS plane *cough*) had to inform Ukraine that the Russians were genuinely directing their attention at the drone. So the whole gee, we’re not sure, could of been … yes, yes, seems like it was Ukraine act from the U.S. side was a bit of theater.
With a displacement of over 12,000 tons and a length greater than two football fields, the Moskva was a large ship. In fact, it may be the largest ship to go down in war since World War II. Argentina lost the light cruiser General Belgrano during the Falklands War in 1982, but even though that ship carried a crew twice the size of the Moskva, it was actually about 3,000 tons lighter and just a smidge shorter.
And there’s another way that the Moskva may be a larger loss.
The Moskva carried a complement of 510, including officers. If 58 is an accurate count of survivors, then 452 men went down with the flagship of the Black Sea fleet. That Argentine ship in 1982 had a crew of 1,138 when a British submarine scored a direct hit with three torpedoes. Over 250 were killed in the resulting explosions. However, as the ship began to list, the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. Life rafts were deployed and, despite increasingly bad weather, rescue vessels later pulled 772 men out of the water. Total losses were 323 killed.
Whatever happened with the Moskva under cloud cover on the Black Sea, it does not seem to have been an orderly evacuation. The loss of crew also seems to be largest recorded since World War II.
At this point, Ukraine estimates that 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed. Oryx records over 2,900 large piece of equipment destroyed, including over 500 tanks. Not only has Russia lost the flagship of the Black Sea fleet, it earlier lost the 370’ long, 3,400 ton landing ship Saratov. At least two other large ships have withdrawn from the fight after being damaged in the same attack that set the Saratov on fire, resulting in its sinking.
Most of what is being spread around Russian television is ridiculous, even as propaganda. But those claims that this is already World War III? Measured on a scale of the losses Russia is racking up, they may be right.
Saturday, Apr 16, 2022 · 4:18:34 PM EDT · Mark Sumner Russia has captured one of the large factory complexes in Mariupol, and it’s now clear that there was at least some truth to accounts that Ukrainian forces in the city had access to underground passages where they could move and rest without being shelled by Russia.