Russia is on the verge of taking a key Ukrainian city, but bigger battles await
It was more a question of when, rather than if, the remaining Ukrainian units in the eastern city of Severodonetsk would be withdrawn.
For the last several weeks, Russian forces have simply destroyed every defensive position the Ukrainians have adopted, pushing them into a few square blocks in and around the city's Azot chemical plant.
Ukrainian forces in Severodonetsk held on much longer than many observers anticipated, forcing the Russians and their allies to devote resources to the city that might have been used to press the offensive elsewhere.
But the Ukrainian military has clearly made the decision that there was nothing more to defend -- and that hundreds of civilians sheltering at the plant were in greater danger with every passing day.
According to the Institute for War, a US think tank that follows the campaign closely, "The loss of Severodonetsk is a loss for Ukraine in the sense that any terrain captured by Russian forces is a loss -- but the battle of Severodonetsk will not be a decisive Russian victory."
Now the battle moves across the Siverskiy Donets river to Lysychansk, the last city in Luhansk held by Ukrainian forces. And there are already signs that the Russians will use the same merciless tactic of area bombardment to grind down Ukrainian forces, deploying combat planes, multiple launch rocket systems and even short-range ballistic missiles such as the Tochka-U.
Serhiy Hayday, the head of the Luhansk regional military administration, noted Friday: "There is a lot of military equipment. According to our information, at least six Tochka-U left in the direction of Lysychansk from Starobilsk only.
One is enough destructive power -- six is a total disaster."
The loss of Severodonetsk - and, potentially, Lysychansk in the coming days -- may have been priced into Ukrainian calculations, given the overwhelming firepower of Russian forces and the apparent improvement in Russian logistics since the campaign against Kyiv was abandoned. But every town and city defended provides an opportunity to degrade the enemy.
There are still large areas of the neighboring Donetsk region under Ukrainian control. The regional military administration says about 45% of Donetsk is held by Ukrainian forces, including the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
There are not many obvious defensive positions west of Lysychansk, in an area of open countryside.
Ukrainian commanders will have to decide whether the whole pocket -- courageously defended for weeks -- is better abandoned for a more consolidated defense of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Kostiantynivka, the industrial belt of Donetsk.
The question is whether the losses inflicted on Russian forces in recent weeks will impair their ability and desire to gobble up more territory, especially as Ukraine deploys more accurate western weapons such as the HIMARS rocket systems.
Equally, it's unclear whether the punishment endured by Ukrainian units in the Donbas region over the last two months has left them with enough resources to launch counter-attacks against Russian flanks (as they have attempted against Russian forces advancing from Kharkiv region in the north.)
The Kremlin has not veered from its ultimate objective of taking all of Donetsk and Luhansk. It now has almost all the latter. Completing the "special military operation" will still take weeks, and more likely months, if at all.
It has become a classic war of attrition.