Editor’s note: Jeffrey Owens is a Jeffersonville native, a 1995 graduate of Miami Trace High School and 2000 graduate of Ohio University. As a life-long history buff, Owens published Victory In Europe; A People’s History of the Second World War, a more than 700 page analysis of World War 2 in Europe in 2015. Since 2015, Owens has hosted more than a dozen educational symposiums on a variety of military history topics at the Grove City Library.
Although the setting is Eastern Ukraine the landscape resembles the opening scene of Terminator 2; a desolate war zone deprived of anything save only death and destruction. The Donetsk-Luhansk line of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the most dangerous place on the planet whose soldiers have endured combat not seen since the Second World War.
Towns like Rubizhne, Lysychansk and Sievierdonetsk have been blown to smithereens. Week after week and twenty-four hours a day Russia continually throws everything in their conventional arsenal at them, including but not limited to heavy machine guns, mortars, tanks, artillery, missiles, rockets, flame throwers, and aerial bombs but the Ukrainians fight on. Here the earth has been disemboweled, deafened wildlife run about defenseless with their eardrums blown out, while a two-tour veteran of Afghanistan fighting with the Ukrainians referred to his service there as “a playground compared to Eastern Ukraine.”
Russian infantry, armor, artillery and air power continuously drive west against Ukrainian defenses which have heroically stood for going on three months and held Putin’s forces to incredibly modest gains in spite of the odds against them. Russian tactics of scorched earth never evolve. They advance by saturating any obstacle town or base with tens of thousands of explosive ordinances followed by repeated frontal assaults until the Russians are either victorious or the front grinds to a halt.
Examples abound. The Ukrainian General Staff releases daily updates on the war and every day they detail the results of the Russian assaults along the Donetsk-Luhansk line. On May 14 ten attacks were reported, none of which were successful, and twenty-one Russian vehicles and weapon systems were lost. The Russian assault on the Chernobaivka airport is equally representative as over the course of multiple days seventeen frontal assaults were launched upon it but all seventeen were beaten back. With a centralized command structure where zero independent thought is tolerated, the Russian attacks can only be expected to continue on indefinitely.
The Ukrainians are tough and know what they’re doing as they’ve been fighting this war since 2014; the fact that Russia fully invaded on February 24 merely intensified the conflict. Holding the line between democracy and tyranny, between existence and obliteration is serious business and not for the faint of heart.
Few civilians are visible on the Donetsk-Luhansk front lines and the ones who remain survive in basements and bomb shelters. Meanwhile the roads are chalked with military vehicles and security checkpoints manned by tough soldiers hardened by years of combat. Discipline is strict, especially at night where movement is limited and base camps and vehicles are concealed to avoid detection from patrolling Russian drones. Soldiers catch sleep as they can on cots and sleeping bags in cramped quarters inundated with the aromas of sweat, unwashed bodies and testosterone, while constantly rotated out on combat missions where the single reality that exists is kill or be killed.
Meanwhile Russian casualties mount beyond any conceivable prediction as between 15,000-25,000 have been killed, double that number wounded with a further 10,000-15,000 captured. An intercepted phone conversation between two Russian officers recorded by Ukrainian intelligence in early May captured the reality of the situation regarding a “secret dump” of bodies being kept in the Donetsk.
Without making any effort to identify the bodies, security personnel just “tosses them in” and there “are thousands of them.” According to the conversation “There’s nowhere left to place (the bodies). It’s a dump…It’s as tall as a person“ and is “fenced off, sealed, and they don’t let anyone in.” As far as grieving families go, they are overwhelmingly ignored and or told that their loved ones are simply missing, when tragically many of them may lie in the bottom of a fenced in pile in the Donetsk.
Much of the fighting in Luhansk bends along the Siverskyi Donets river which flows from Russia and meanders through the Donbas. The Siverskyi Donets is strategic as its defense by Ukraine or conquest by Russia is crucial in determining the future of the twenty percent of Luhansk that remains under Ukrainian control.
Trial and failure has been the overriding theme of Russia’s efforts to erect and cross pontoon bridges to overcome its waters. Ambush and sabotage have been a daily reality for Russian troops, but the pinnacle was reached on May 11 when Ukrainian forces destroyed nearly an entire Russian motorized infantry brigade while attempting to cross the pontoon bridge. Appalling tactical leadership was displayed as the Russians allowed the entire bridge to be crammed with vehicles from front to back across the entire spread of the bridge. With drones overhead the Ukrainians turned the crossing into a turkey shoot by raining artillery down in concentrated strikes, undoubtedly killing hundreds, and not only destroying scores of vehicles but also the bridge itself.
Botched river crossings aside, Eastern Ukraine will be won or lost with artillery; the modern long range cannons whose shells relentlessly rain down on both sides, from every direction and around the clock. Twenty First Century artillery is a game of drones, and the Ukrainians excel at it. Elite drone recon units advance within a mile or two of the enemy, launch their drones, identify targets, radio in firing coordinates, observe the results and if necessary correct the firing mission. The May 11 river crossing is a single example but hundreds of pieces of Russian war equipment from tanks to personnel carriers have been eliminated in this way along with thousands of soldiers across the front.
Among multiple U.S. aid packages to Ukraine include ninety M777 Howitzer cannon along with 40,000 155 mm rounds. Once the aid package was approved 300 Ukrainian artillery officers and NCO’s were rotated into NATO countries for training on the M777 and better than sixty percent of the cannons were in use in Ukraine by the second week of May.
Until the M777’s arrival most of the Ukrainian artillery used in the war has been the 23S-Akatsiya, a Soviet model from the late eighties and early nineties, that fires a 152mm shell for an average range of ten miles. Still the Ukrainians have managed to keep pace with their Russian counterparts, most of whose equipment is of similar age.
With a maximum range of twenty-five miles, the capacity to fire two to three rounds per minute, and being the first 155 mm cannon to weigh less than 10,000 pounds; the M777 is a highly mobile and effective weapon which will significantly improve Ukrainian firepower. Unlike the 23S-Akatsiya, the M777 fires precision-guided Excalibur rounds which utilize GPS to accurately sync with and eliminate targets with near surgical precision. These weapons in the coming weeks will have a huge impact in the Donbas where they will overwhelmingly outmatch the Russian cannons.
North of the Donbas, Ukraine appears to have won the battle of Kharkiv, as the Russians not only continue to withdrawal but also to redeploy to Isyum. The lack of available reinforcements and continuous poor morale of soldiers has prevented the Russians from successfully countering any Ukrainian offensives over the previous days; possibly indicating an opening for Ukrainian forces to press the advantage and push further southeast to threaten the supply lines of the Isyum front.
This is an extraordinary success for Ukraine coming just over a month after winning the battle of Kyiv and liberating all of northern Ukraine. “We continue to restore the de-occupied territories of Ukraine,” said President Zelensky on May 13, “As of today, 1015 settlements have been de-occupied, which is plus six in the past 24 hours.” Upon arrival Ukrainian forces have restored power, water and social services to communities, provided medical care to those in need while counselors offered services to war crime victims.
Zelensky continued that “We remember every city and every community that is still under occupation. Kherson, Melitopol, Berdyansk, Enerhodar, Mariupol and all cities and towns of Donbas… The gradual liberation of the Kharkiv region proves that we will not leave anyone to the enemy.”
Upon delivering a dull and non climactic invocation at the May 9 Victory in Europe celebration in Moscow, Putin is clearly under considerable pressure from the the sheer fiasco that the Ukraine war has caused and the decimation it has brought to the Russian military. Putin is more than likely seeking to find in the coming months a solution to end the war in order to save what is left of his military and to simultaneously consolidate his meager gains.
Although the establishment of a Kherson People’s Republic in southeast Ukraine would be consistent with Putin’s previous aggressions in eastern Donetsk and Luhansk, recent statements and actions by senior Moscow cadre indicate that Putin intends to annex occupied portions of Kherson and the Donbas into Russia. In doing so, Putin would invoke nuclear deterrence from any further aggressions into “Russia,” which would likely even include continued Ukrainian counter offensives to liberate their own lands from Moscow’s clutch.
The reliance upon nuclear deterrent over annexed territory is a silent admission that Putin no longer posses a conventional force capable of deterrence. Embattled with chronic low morale within his military ranks and facing lackluster results in a poorly planned and organized campaign, Ukraine and NATO allies are at a pinnacle in their campaign where rolling back Russian gains with all possible efficiency will seriously degrade Putin’s likelihood and or ability of annexation. The world is already facing a food crisis with the war but Russia retaining any Ukrainian lands would not only be devastating to the Ukrainian economy but also to major world supply chains reliant on Ukrainian raw materials and industrial production. The complete and permanent expulsion of Russian forces from Ukrainian lands is the only viable option.