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 lifelong 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 II 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.
The following is Owens’ 19th Ukraine analysis:
On this Memorial Day 2022:
“Unlike any other major world power in history, the United States has fought against totalitarian dictators, liberated the oppressed, and then left the nation to the people. Western Europe owes its freedom to your leadership and sacrifices in World War II by defeating the Nazis. Eastern Europe owes its freedom to your contribution to breaking up the Soviet Union. Your sacrifices, both in combat and in training, have led in large part to the spread of democracy around the globe.” — Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine General Valerii Zaluzhnyi
The fate of Luhansk Oblast hangs in the balance as Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, its final bastion settlements, are besieged from all sides by an aggressive Russian offensive. After failing to take Kyiv, Russian forces withdrew entirely from northern Ukraine in late March and refocused their war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine made up of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. Resulting from poor strategy, leadership and logistics, this renewed Russian offensive running from mid-April through late May failed to make any substantial gains in Donetsk while their southwards offensive from Isyum, designed to encircle Ukrainian forces holding the Donetsk-Luhansk lines from behind, stalled out. By late May, a third revised Russian offensive was initiated with all available combat power concentrated solely on the conquest of Luhansk.
As of Feb. 24 Russia controlled 70% of Luhansk after eight years of separatist conflict, but after three months of brutal war, Ukrainian forces have been reduced to holding less than 10% of its territory. Severodonetsk has served as the provisional capital of Luhansk Oblast since the city of Luhansk was overrun by separatist forces during the eight-year conflict, and has been courageously held by its defenders despite being leveled by relentless Russian bombing and shelling.
Translated as “North Donetsk” Severodonetsk is an industrialized city with a pre-war population of 100,000. Established on the left bank of the Siverskyi Donets River, it originated as a housing settlement known as Liskhimstroi for workers at a nitrogen fertilizer plant across the river in the town of Lysychansk during the 1930s. Upon the post World War II establishment of significant industry on the left bank of the river, the settlement was renamed Severdonetsk and its population grew substantially.
Severdonetsk remains the most easterly city in the Donbas in Ukrainian hands, with Lysychansk just to its southwest, along with a narrow Ground Line of Communication (GLOC) running to the town of Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast. Besieged from nearly all sides, and with all available Russian combat power in the region concentrated on this singular city, the situation in Severdonetsk has the makings for a second Mariupol. Russian mechanized infantry began attacking the city’s defenses in the last days of May before completing its encirclement. Brutal urban combat as was seen in Mariupol has already begun with the city being blown to bits and with each and every building needing cleared room by room resulting in heavy casualties on both sides.
Ukrainian defenders have created a salient in the Russian front wrapping around Severodonetsk and Lysychansk from its eastern, southern and northern borders, while simultaneously guarding and maintaining their thin supply line. Over the preceding weeks, as the concentrated Russian offensive in Luhansk closed in, the Russians slowly, but at high cost, took the towns of Rubizhne and Lyman and by the final days of May were within rifle and mortar range of Severodonetsk.
The battle of Severodonetsk has created the most serious situation the Ukrainian General Staff has faced since the Mariupol defenders became isolated in the Azovstal factory complex, with the Ukrainian military simultaneously lacking the necessary striking power and corresponding air cover to reach them. Russian casualties remain appallingly high and the attrition gradient in urban combat will likely favor the Ukrainians as Russian forces continuously advance on bombed out but fortified Ukrainian positions. The capture of Severodonetsk for Putin is solely symbolic as its fall would yield the full occupation of Luhansk, giving him a potential opportunity to sue for a ceasefire if he would choose to do so. Any material gain, however, would be nonexistent as the city lay in complete ruins.
For the Ukrainian leadership, maintaining a foothold in Luhansk is essential. From there they preserve the ability to not only degrade a significant amount of Russian combat power, but also maintain a launch pad for a potential counteroffensive to reclaim Russian occupied territory. While Ukraine continues to receive aid from the West, which although arrives at various speeds and concentrations, it nonetheless continues to bolster their defense. Russia, however, reveals by the day that their military capabilities and supply of replacement troops and vehicles continues to be ever more depleted.
Russian border guards have been pulled from their posts and sent to infantry training, which is nowhere near their specialty. Meanwhile, Russian commanders are so desperate for replacement war equipment that they are forbidding units from risking vehicles to either rescue wounded soldiers or to transport supplies to isolated units who advanced too far. Already stricken with poor morale within units of all sizes by intentionally leaving wounded are isolated troops to die in the field, Russian commanders may find mutinous situations spreading uncontrollably within their ranks over the coming weeks as conscript soldiers realize what is in store for them.
Luhansk military administrator for Ukraine Serhiy Haidai confirms that Severodonetsk “has not been cut off,” but that 15,000 civilians remain spread throughout bomb shelters and basements across the city. Throughout the three months of war, Russian shelling of civilian targets has become a normalcy and Severodonetsk is no exception. The American volunteer Dallas Casey, evacuating civilians while under constant fire, recounted how in the final days of May that a fellow volunteer was killed while going door-to-door when her body was ripped apart by an incoming Russian mortar shell.
The perilous roads and single bridge linking Bakhmut to Severodonetsk is laden with burned out cars, flattened electrical lines, destroyed military vehicles, bomb craters and unexploded rocket fins protruding from the ground. While the Ukrainian Military and Territorial Defense Force holds the line around the clock against brutal Russian attacks, Ukrainian police maintain security and facilitate civilian rescues. Chief of Luhansk Police Oleh Hryhorov has set up headquarters in Severodonetsk even though his hometown lies within Russian occupied zones to the east. Aside from evacuating 30 to 40 civilians a day, his force is also responsible for importing humanitarian aid into the city along with burying the hundreds of dead.
Many civilians stayed out of civic duty and the belief in a higher purpose to defend their homeland against Russia. Other able-bodied civilians remained as they serve as caretakers to the elderly and sick who are not able to be relocated. Chief Hryhorov’s officers have been inundated with requests for evacuating elderly along with other groups demanding assurances of safety, but have limited means to fulfill either. The journey out of the city is chalked with danger as Russian bombs explode around the clock along the narrow corridor to safety. Although Severodonetsk has a hospital, only one doctor remains within its battered walls and is maxed to capacity in caring for 30 patients.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian and economic catastrophe continues in Mariupol even after the surrender of the defenders holed up in the massive Azovstal Metallurgical factory along the Sea of Azov. Mariupol fell under seige in February primarily from the 8th Combined Arms Army advancing southwest from the DPR to forge a land bridge connecting Crimea with the Russian backed Sepratist Donetsk region. Ukrainian soldiers held out under incredibly strenuous combat from February to May, as they were bombed, shelled and driven across the city until a managery of units turned the 11 square mile behemoth Azovstal complex into a fortress.
Determining that no options existed to rescue the besieged soldiers who were fast running out of food, water and medical supplies, the Ukrainian General Staff by mid-May ordered the defenders to surrender; as this was the only way to save the lives of the troops and to end the fierce bombardment of the city. The General Staff commended the defenders for having “performed their combat task” but confirmed that there was nothing further to be done. The Ukrainian population who never relented a day in their support of the Azovstal fighters, hailed them as “superheroes” and proclaimed that their actions were etched “forever in history.”
The bravery of the Azovstal fighters tied down as many as 12 Russian battalion tactical groups, which otherwise could have been used for assaults on Zaporizhzhia or Mykolaiv. Even while fighting under near impossible conditions, the soldiers of Mariupol pulled off multiple “risky maneuvers” to rescue surrounded units and consolidate forces within the Azovstal fortress. Although an accurate number of surrendered troops at Azovstal is currently unknown because Russia intentionally inflated the numbers to make it appear that its 12 battalions were held up by a considerably larger force; at or near 1,000 surrendered of whom more than 260 were wounded.
Once the fighting ceased, the approximately 100,000 civilians living in basements and bomb shelters throughout the city in appalling conditions after more than two months without running water or incoming food or humanitarian supplies began to be recovered by Russian forces. For many their troubles are only beginning as they will be processed through the “filtration” system and deported into Russia to an uncertain future. At least, however, the soldiers and civilians alike in Mariupol are no longer living under constant bombardment and the fear of death from artillery strikes, bombs or starvation.
The death toll in Mariupol likewise remains unknown, but more than 16,000 bodies have been discovered from satellite imagery and witness accounts in mass graves alone. This does not even touch the total number of deaths as undoubtedly thousands more are buried under the rubble that once was a city of a half a million people and is now completely destroyed. Nor does it account for many hundreds if not thousands who may die or have died from disease, dehydration and starvation stemming from the atrocious living conditions they were forced to endure in the basements and bomb shelters across the city.
Among the greatest tragedies of Mariupol might be the legacy of Viktor Putin, the older brother of the Russian president whom the latter never met. The Putin family was native to Leningrad which the Nazis laid siege to for more than 900 brutal days beginning in September 1941. Throughout those years Leningrad was pulverized with every weapon in the German arsenal and during the winter months, the singular lifeline to the city was maintained by hundreds of trucks driving across the frozen Lake Lodoga, laden with food and supplies. At or near 200,000 civilians died from German weaponry, starvation and disease, one of whom was the child Victor Putin, a loss that President Putin has long lamented. Perhaps now when rain falls on Mariupol, the precipitation is metaphorically Viktor’s tears, pouring for the more than 20,000 victims of his brother, who died in the same way as he.