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Russian troops at Izyum, but not for long.

With unconfirmed reports that Ukraine has pushed Russia mostly out of its territory north of Kharkiv, we have been speculating where Ukraine would counter next—toward the railhead northeast of Kharkiv in Vovchansk, or the the logistical hub at Kupiansk, where three major rail lines connect.

Both those locations would cut off the flow of supplies to the Izyum salient and Russia’s 22 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) in the pocket—the largest concentration of Russian forces anywhere in Ukraine. 

Ukraine took a look at both of those critical logistical centers, and then decided to hit the salient directly instead. 

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Army of Ukraine launched a counteroffensive in the Izyum district of the Kharkiv oblast - Kharkiv Military Administration Head https://t.co/mRhRUjMQHF

“The hottest point is Izyum direction. ???????? Army is counter attacking. ????????forces are retreating in some directions”
????General Staff pic.twitter.com/f2CZJMkW3p

— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) May 14, 2022

NASA FIRMS satellite data, designed to track forest fires, gives us a perfect indication of the direction of combat: 

The woods to the west of Izyum, where any Ukrainian counteroffensive would originate, are lit. It’s happening. 

Also note how, east of Izyum, the line of fire exactly follows the north bank of the Donets River—those are either Ukraine’s last positions on that bank (just Lyman and Severodonetsk at this point), or Russian forces who have reached the waterline being shelled by Ukrainian artillery. 

We can even see the massive artillery barrage at Russia’s ill-fated Bilohorivka river crossing attempt. If you haven’t read my story on Bilohorivka yet, I highly recommend it. It might be the most unbelievable story of the war. Meanwhile, those fires north of Kharkiv are on newly liberated Ukrainian territory, which means Russia is firing artillery on those positions either to slow down their advance, or simply out of punitive anger. Much of Russia’s military strategy appears to be a manifestation of Vladimir Putin’s aggrieved, irrational rage. 

Back to the Battle of the Izyum Salient, Russian telegram claims five Ukrainian brigades are moving in on Izyum from the north, looking to directly cut off supply lines to the bulk of the Russian forces in the salient. That would be the equivalent of 10-15 Russian BTGs which seems … fantastical. Given how well Ukraine has fought, Russians may be mythifying them so they seem 10 feet tall and three times their number. But for context, a Ukrainian brigade is around 1,600 troops and 200 armored vehicles. If these reports are correct, we’re talking about 1,000 armored vehicles, and a metric buttload of artillery, raining on Russian positions. Ukraine had 20 brigades pre-war, with another four in reserve, which are likely already in action. More are being created from reservists, but there’s no indication they’ve had to be fielded just yet. So five brigades would be a massive commitment of forces. 

Regardless of their actual size (and I do hope it’s five brigades), those Russian sources on telegram also say Ukraine has crossed the Donets for the attack. So if Ukraine is crossing the Donets to attack Izyum’s supply lines, then this seems like a logical place to do so: 

And that NASA FIRMS map certainly supports the notion of ongoing operations both in that pocket, and on the east side of the Donets in the pink (contested) territory just west of Izyum. 

Remember, Ukraine doesn’t announce operations in advance. Looking at FIRMS imagery over the past several days, we can actually see the counter-offensive began on May 10-11:

Russia abandoned Kharkiv because it had no reserves left. Ukrainian general staff and the Pentagon have said Russia has 19 BTGs in reserve in Belgorod, so why weren’t they rushed to Kharkiv to defend their supply lines? If there’s anything left in Russia, it’s likely shattered remnants and troops refusing to deploy or redeploy.

Now, with Russia already at its limits, Ukraine is taking direct aim at the largest concentration of Russian forces in Ukraine. 

Guys, 20-25% of Russia’s entire Army is in that pocket.

Something big is happening.

I mean big, as in war-altering. 

We were looking at Izyum’s supply hubs in Kupiansk and Vochansk. Ukraine is going straight for the jugular instead.

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Ukraine update: Russian soldiers reported missing in action actually piled high in body dump

This fragment of a destroyed Russian aircraft was added to museum exhibits in Kyiv, May 9, 2022.

Since the invasion began, Ukrainian-living-in-London Dmitri has translated hundreds of documents, text messages, and transcripts into English. His translations have helped to reveal disgruntled Russian soldiers who are aware that their leaders are lying to them, soldiers terrified that they are being sent into a meat grinder, and soldiers who have simply had enough and refuse to go when ordered. 

Some of Dmitri’s translations have been intensely difficult to read. Not because of an issue with grammar, but because of the content. That includes not just Russian soldiers phoning home to brag about the civilians they’ve killed and the items they’ve stolen from Ukrainian homes, but a Russian wife giving her husband permission to rape Ukrainian women. (That couple has since been identified.)

Still, none of the translations has been quite this grisly. Trigger warnings are usually reserved for video or images, but one seems appropriate in this case. So … be warned.

From the beginning of the war, we’ve seen claims that Russia had been underreporting their losses. On a few occasions, a number of dead and wounded at least close to what Ukrainian officials and U.S. intelligence have been estimating have made it onto Russian TV or other media outlets, but those numbers have quickly been replaced or walked back, often with numbers an order of magnitude lower. There have also been images of Russian war widows sullenly clutching a few dollars’ worth of compensation, but that compensation has been coming from private institutions, not the government of Vladimir Putin. 

Groups in Ukraine have set up “help lines” for Russian families, both with the purpose of helping locate soldiers who have gone silent after crossing into Ukraine, and driving home the point that Russian soldiers are dying in Putin’s illegal invasion in large numbers. Meanwhile, the Kremlin not only continues to report low numbers of casualties overall, but to list large numbers of troops as simply “missing in action,” sometimes with a hint of accusation that those missing are actually AWOL.

In this translation, a woman is looking for her brother, who has been among the missing in Ukraine. After a long search, his sister has found him. Though not in a way that anyone would want to find a family member.

Man: His sister, she went to Donetsk … there was a, basically a dump.

Woman: Oh, fuck.

Man: She paid money [to let them search through the bodies]. They are stacked on top of one another.

Woman: Oh, fuck.

Man: … She paid money, good money, so they moved the bodies around until they found him. … She says it’s a pile there. There’s nowhere else to put them. It’s a dump. I’m telling you in Russian — a dump. 

Woman: Oh, fuck. Shit …

Man: She says thousands. Thousands. They are thrown here and there, for them it’s easier to make it look like they are missing in action. … It’s not a morgue. It’s a dump.

The phrase “I’m telling you in Russian” in this exchange means more or less “I’m being serious.”

Recently, Putin has made promises about increasing the compensation for families of those lost in Ukraine, with payments as high as $45,000. Except those new promises also come with caveats. Limitations. Special circumstances. And don’t expect any of that money to go to those who are only “missing in action” at a dump where Russian bodies are stacked like cordwood.

Kharkiv

Not only has the Kharkiv region seen some of the most significant action over the last two weeks, it’s also some of the most visible. The work Ukrainian forces are doing to harass Russian battalion tactical groups gathered around Izyum may be doing just as much to disrupt Russia’s offensive, but because in that area Ukraine appears to be conducting more hit-and-run raids rather than systematically recapturing villages and clearing areas of Russian control, it’s much harder to follow the progress.

On the other hand, Ukrainian actions in Kharkiv have been more on the order of a classic counteroffensive, rolling back Russian-occupied territory town by town, putting in place members of territorial defense, preparing locations against any threat by Russia to retake the offensive. All of that generates chatter on Twitter and Telegram. The accompanying work from artillery, as reflected by data from satellites generally intended to track wildfires, also gives a good sense of priority targets and upcoming thrusts by infantry.

But when it comes to what’s happening in the Kharkiv area on Wednesday, the answer is a big shrug.

Kharkiv area on May 9, 2022.

For the moment, there are no reports of new, big movements in the Kharkiv area. A number of villages near Staryi Saltiv were recaptured on Saturday, and Ukrainian forces made progress at the western end of the line at Tsupivka, but both Sunday and Monday appear to have been relatively quiet. That includes a big reduction in the amount of shelling. On Sunday, Ukraine directed some shells into the area northwest of Lyptsi, which Ukrainian soldiers have entered, but reportedly do not control. There was also firing on an area about a kilometer north of Vesele, which Ukrainian soldiers have entered, but reportedly do not control. And there was firing at a chain of locations near Petrivka which, so far as can be determined, is still under Russian control.

But on Monday, the FIRMS data is all but clear. Whether that means Ukraine has taken some of these towns and it just hasn’t made it onto Twitter/Telegram in a recognizable way or something else is going on, I don’t know.

One reason to think something else might be going on: Ukraine seemed to be racing up the west bank of the Siverskyi Donets River in an effort to secure a bridge to the east. However, the bridge at Staryi Saltiv was blown by the Russians, then the bridge at Rubiznhe, then the bridge at Starytsya, then the bridge at Ohirtseve. And that’s it. There are no more bridges to race for.

It’s entirely possible that, without being able to claim one of those bridges intact, Ukraine is rethinking its strategy for the area west of the Donets. Ukraine may leave fewer people in the area to secure existing gains and continue to press what are reportedly three Russian BTGs in the area, while doing something like what kos suggests in shifting forces to go after critical Russian supply points to the southeast. Ukraine might even decide to fold some of those experienced winners from around Kharkiv into the push against Izyum. The Kharkiv map may become a little more stable over the next few days … or not.

Oh, and one thing that may be worth noting is that Ukraine spent three solid days firing artillery into the area around the east end of the bridge across from Staryi Saltiv. There is a reservoir at that location, making the water almost 2 kilometers wide, which would seem to make this a very unlikely point for Ukraine to create a crossing, especially when the river is just 100 meters wide near Rubiznhe and 60 meters wide upstream at Startsya. However, Ukrainian engineers may have had a chance to examine the bridge at Staryi Saltiv and determined that repairs were possible. Or ... Ukraine was just firing at Russian gun emplacements on the far side of the river and it had nothing to do with the bridge. We’ll see.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian Ministry of Defense officials included Ruski Tyshky, Bairak, and Rubizhne on the list of locations officially liberated.

Note: As I was putting this together, there were conflicting claims that Ukraine has taken Lyptsi. It seems likely that Ukraine has recaptured much of the town proper, but Russian forces remain in positions very close on the west. There were also claims that Ukraine is in control of the road between Vesele and Bairak, which would seem like a very bad thing for those Russian troops still down at Petrivka.

Eastern Ukraine

Russian forces are slowly walking their way toward Lyman, with reports of Russian forces in Derylove to the north and some reports of small numbers of Russian troops on the north side of Lyman itself. Within the next day or two, the town could be pressed from west, east, and north. But that’s not happening yet, no matter how many people are sweating about it.

At the extreme east of Ukrainian-held positions, the The Wall Street Journal this morning has an article on conditions in Severeodonetsk, which is now connected to the rest of Ukrainian-controlled territory by a single road—a road that is under fire from Russian artillery. It’s a good reminder of the kind of sacrifices that are being made by everyone in Ukraine, not just those in the military.

There’s also this bit from Igor Girkin. (A reminder that Girkin is a Russian who formerly headed up the DNR and expected to become the leader of a Donetsk “republic” before he found himself on the losing end of political maneuvering among pro-Russian forces.)

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На Донецькому напрямку окупанти здійснювали спробу штурмових дій у напрямках міста Марʼїнка, населених пунктів Камʼянка Ясинуватського району та Новомихайлівка Покровського району Донецької області. Успіху не мали. pic.twitter.com/rTA1zbRXD5

— IgorGirkin (@GirkinGirkin) May 10, 2022

In the Donetsk direction, the occupiers attempted assault operations in the directions of the town of Marinka, the settlements of Kamyanka, Yasynuvata district, and Novomykhailivka, Pokrovsky district, Donetsk region. They were unsuccessful.
 

Whenever you see phrases like “they were unsuccessful,” read that as vehicles and soldiers were wasted. For every small advance Russia makes, it appears to make many, many more of these unsuccessful attempts.

Russian Stuff Blowing Up Theater

And now, let’s watch Russian tanks, vehicles, and artillery go boom.

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The aftermath of a Ukrainian strike on a Russian position in Vesele, Kharkiv Oblast. Presumably ammunition storage. https://t.co/Lavvpdfyas pic.twitter.com/2it3ZJwOXk

— Rob Lee (@RALee85) May 9, 2022

This could be why Ukrainian artillery moved on past Vesele on Saturday and was hitting positions to the north: no Russian equipment left in Vesele itself to hit.

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A Russian T-90M getting destroyed in Kharkiv Oblast pic.twitter.com/Hdcc1h8eIh

— Illia Ponomarenko ???????? (@IAPonomarenko) May 10, 2022

Remember the extremely rare and new T-90M tank Russia sent into Ukraine only to have it turn up dead north of Kharkiv within a week? Turns out there is another one. I mean was.

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#Ukraine: The Ukrainian 25th Airborne Brigade claimed to hit a Russian tank with the famous FGM-148 Javelin ATGM; whatever was struck, there is little left of it now. pic.twitter.com/PpFbqtECAr

— ???????? Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) May 9, 2022

It’s possible this is the same tank as some of the landscape features look similar. On the other hand, the explosion itself looks different and if Ukraine is now putting more than one drone in the air to capture multiple angles of Russian tanks being obliterated, that would be just showing off.

In any case, what happens to both these tanks shows just how incredibly powerful a Javelin is. This is a missile that is not screwing around.

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#Ukraine: Somewhere in the South, the Ukrainian 59th Motorized Brigade struck Russian artillery positions with counter-battery fire, destroying and damaging several howitzers (Claimed to be D-30).

A 2S19 Msta-S was also claimed, but we can't verify what was actually hit. pic.twitter.com/XQF7ON8seF

— ???????? Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) May 10, 2022

I know it was in the last update, but watching those artillery positions fall one by one was too good to skip a repeat.

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