The Two Wars Taking Place in Ukraine

Neil Hauer

Image courtesy of Sergei Guneyev / Pool / AFP

Odessa, Ukraine – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been ongoing for a full three weeks now. That is already a military success in itself for Ukraine: Many analysts (and the Kremlin itself) expected that lightning Russian operations could score a victory within days. Ukraine’s dogged resistance, however, has changed the narrative. The war has been costly for Moscow with more than 1,300 pieces of Russian military hardware destroyed or captured. One US estimate placed the number of Russians killed in action between 6,000 and 8,000 – a staggering number when compared to the 2,401 military deaths suffered by the US during 20 years in Afghanistan.

But this hardly means the war’s end. Russia still possesses almost nine-tenths of its deployed combat strength in Ukraine, with significant territorial gains to show for it. The war in Ukraine has come to resemble two parallel, largely divergent stories: The war in the cities, and the war in the countryside.

The fight for Ukraine’s cities has received most of the attention thus far, and for good reason. Unable to seize key cities by quick special forces actions, Russia’s army has instead turned to its old playbook: Level them. This is perhaps most apparent in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, close to the Russian border in the northeast. After failed thunder runs into the city by Spetsnaz special forces and paratroopers in the opening days of the war, Russia has deployed artillery and multiple rocket launchers on Kharkiv’s northern and eastern outskirts. They are currently blasting entire apartment blocks into rubble, inflicting heavy civilian casualties while degrading Ukrainian defenders in the city.

A similar story is playing out in the western and eastern approaches to Kyiv, where Ukrainian forces have thus far managed to contain Russian attackers to the city’s edges. The most brutal urban combat is happening in Mariupol, the southeastern port city where Russian forces are slowly advancing amid massive bombardments that have reportedly killed thousands of civilians.

But there is another war playing out in Ukraine as well, one on which we have far less information: The war of maneuver in the Ukrainian countryside.

The primary axis of this fight is taking place in Ukraine’s east. There, the bulk of the Ukrainian army remains deployed along the front lines with the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, arrayed against joint Russian-separatist forces. The Ukrainian high command has been loath to abandon this region, for good reason: It is the most fortified in the country, having remained a semi-active but static front for the past eight years, while to withdraw would mean ceding large areas of Ukraine’s east. Well-supplied and experienced Ukrainian forces here have done well to date, containing any direct Russian advance punching forward from the east.

Recent developments, however, indicate that this force is increasingly in danger. Russian forces have linked up in the southeast, with units advancing from Crimea connecting with troops pushing out from the Donetsk region in a move that has isolated Mariupol. They continue to push northwards, recently capturing the town of Volnovakha after heavy fighting. To the north, Russian units moving from the Russian border are making significant inroads, reaching the outskirts of Severodonetsk (the regional headquarters of a number of Ukrainian formations) and seizing the junction town of Izyum, through which runs one of the key Ukrainian supply lines to the Donbas region. Russian forces are punching into rear areas now, in open terrain where only mobile Ukrainian armored units can check their advance. With no cities to block their way in this area, if current trends continue, the Ukrainian high command will soon be forced to make a difficult decision: Withdraw its Donbas forces towards the Dnieper river, essentially ceding the region to Russian control, or fight on and risk a double encirclement of the cream of the Ukrainian army.

This same story is playing out on a smaller scale in other areas of the country. In the south, Russian forces moving northwards from Crimea are making progress on both sides of the Dnieper, closing on the city of Zaporizhye to the east and Kryvyi Rih, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hometown, to the west. Further west, Russian forces appear to have halted outside the city of Mykolaiv, not attempting to push through it and onwards towards Odessa as envisioned. They are instead taking a similar approach as Kharkiv: Shred the city with fire from multiple rocket launchers at nighttime while bypassing it with their main units. In this case, that force is now moving northward into Ukraine’s soft underbelly, pushing not only towards Kryviy Rih but into the heartlands of central Ukraine as well.

It is yet unclear which of these two sides of the war will prove decisive. Russia’s advances deep into Ukrainian territory provide many opportunities for the defenders as well: Russia’s notoriously poor logistics have already been exposed and hampered further by repeated skillful raids by Ukrainian special forces and irregulars, capturing and destroying supply convoys and isolated units. Moscow also does not possess the manpower for a sustained presence deep in Ukraine’s rear areas, having struggled already to commit enough forces to occupation efforts. Either way, the next week in the Donbas region in particular will bear close watching, and will play a significant role in determining whether Russia can defeat enough of the Ukrainian army to force some sort of settlement, or whether Moscow’s increasingly battered forces will be ground down short of their goal.

Neil Hauer is a security analyst currently in Kyiv, Ukraine. Usually based in Tbilisi, Georgia, his work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus.