Conflict Alerts # 528, 6 July 2022
In the news
On 3 July, Russia’s defence minister Sergey Shoigu reported that the Russian Armed Forces and the People's Militia of the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) had entirely established control over the city of Lysychansk.
Ukraine’s general staff after the withdrawal of troops from Lysychansk stated: "In order to preserve the lives of Ukrainian defenders, a decision was made to withdraw." However, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy pledged that the Ukranians will regroup and retake Lysychansk. He stated: “If the command of our army withdraws people from certain points of the front where the enemy has the greatest fire superiority – in particular this applies to Lysychansk – it means only one thing: we will return thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons."
On 4 July, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin declared victory in Luhansk: “The units that took part in active combat operations and achieved success and victories in the Lugansk direction, of course, should rest and build up their combat capabilities. Other military formations, including the East Group and the West Group, must carry out their tasks according to the previously approved plans, according to the single scheme, and I hope that everything will happen in their directions in the same way as it has happened in Luhansk.”
Issues at large
First, the geographic and ethnic significance of Luhansk. Russia recognized Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics on 21 February 2022. East Ukraine consists of two self-declared states, Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic. Due to its significant Russian-speaking population and over 40 per cent ethnic Russian population, Luhansk historically has a stronger affinity for Russia. The major Russian speaking regions have aspired to secede from Ukraine since Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014.
Second, Russia’s strategy since February 2022. Russia started the war on several fronts, including the eastern region and around Kyiv. Their primary target could have been Kyiv. After failed attempts to take over Kyiv, Russia shifted its strategy towards the Donbas region. Through continuous battles in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and the LPR and DPR forces’ support, Russia first targeted Mariupol, and later Sievierodonetsk, and now Lysychansk, thereby bringing Luhansk under its control. This means redrawing the borders of Ukraine without Luhansk and Donetsk.
Third, the withdrawal of Ukraine. A key reason for Ukraine to withdraw its forces from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions is because it is largely occupied by DPR and LPR infiltrating and evacuating the people. Although Luhansk has several industries and was a contributor to Ukraine’s food exports, Ukraine withdrew to avoid a larger offensive, recoup its military personnel and possibly strike later using the help of NATO and the EU. On the ground, Russia had an advantage over the firepower in Lysyhank, forcing the Ukrainian army to withdraw from the city to protect themselves and the civilians. The move can be to reinforce the defences around the cities of Donetsk, particularly Sloviansk and Khramatorsk.
First, for Russia, after emerging victorious at the battle of Lysychansk, it declared that it has liberated the Luhansk Oblast from Ukraine. Russia perceives it as a major development to control the Donbas region entirely and build a bridge to the south with Crimea. By controlling Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, Russia would be in a better position to launch an offensive against cities to the southwest, particularly Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, and Bakhmut. Luhansk also provides access to the warm waters of the Azov Sea.
Second, for Ukraine, its army expected the fall of Luhansk when Russians crossed the Severdontsk. The battle of Lysychansk was to slow down the advancement of Russian troops to enter Donetsk. Russian artillery may have been depleted, and the troops may have been worn out during the battle of Lysychansk, affecting its momentum towards Donetsk. This may give Ukraine the opportunity to build its defences around the cities of Donetsk. The battle for Donetsk will be a long one with the influx of weapons from the West and may change the tides.
Third, for Europe, there has been no victory so far. The continuous and vast supply of arms and aid from the west has not stopped the fall of Luhansk. Since the start of the conflict, Ukraine has not witnessed any major victory in terms of controlling territory. The recent summits and conferences of international organizations have made commitments for Ukraine in the long term. NATO countries have agreed to increase their troops in Eastern Europe, however, the conflict might henceforth focus only on the Donbas region.