What does Russia’s capture of Severodonetsk mean for Ukraine?

by Barbara R. Abercrombie
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Kyiv, Ukraine – The loss of the southeastern city of Severodonetsk is far more significant and symbolic for Russia than it is for Ukraine, military analysts have told Al Jazeera.

On Friday, Ukrainian troops left the city in the Luhansk region after weeks of fierce fighting.

“It makes no sense to destroy positions for many months to stay there,” regional governor Serhiy Haidai said in televised comments.

Heavy Russian bombing has destroyed nearly every defensive position of Ukrainian troops in the area, but the fall of the nearly-destroyed city is insignificant, a top military expert said.

“It is a small loss, there is still Lysychansk [the neighboring town controlled by Ukraine], and Severodonetsk has largely served its purpose,” Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told Al Jazeera.

The Kremlin applauds the takeover of Severodonetsk as it remained one of the few Ukrainian-controlled cities in Luhansk, one of Ukraine’s smallest and poorest regions partially taken over by pro-Russian separatists in 2014.

“There is a geopolitical component for Russians; it is a district center in the unoccupied part of Luhansk. But we will survive; we are more interested in the military aspect,” Romanenko said.

The claimed Russian victory at Luhansk was so important to Moscow that it ordered the redeployment of its troops from the occupied southern Kherson region and partially occupied Zaporizhzhya, where Ukrainian forces are retaking territory, Romanenko said.

Western and Russian analysts agree with him.

“The loss of Severodonetsk is a loss to Ukraine in the sense that any terrain conquered by Russian forces is a loss – but the Battle of Severodonetsk will not be a decisive Russian victory,” concluded the Institute for War, a US think tank that has have been following the war closely since it began exactly four months ago, on February 24.

Two months of intense fighting also significantly decimated Russian forces in Severodonetsk, where the pre-war population was about 100,000.

“Ukraine has knocked down a significant mass of Russian troops and withdrew,” Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based expert at the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

To some observers, Moscow’s long-term prospects for the war seem unpromising due to heavy losses and demoralized workforce amid Western sanctions that prevent the production of high-precision weapons.

“Time works against Russia [because] its military potential is largely irreplaceable,” he said.

Severodonetsk stands on the Siversky Donets River, which the Russians tried several times unsuccessfully to cross – with heavy losses in the workforce and armored vehicles.

One of the reasons why Severodonetsk fell was because of Russia’s superiority in artillery.

Moscow has used rocket launchers, bombers, and even outdated Tochka U-cruise missiles to shell Ukrainian positions and residential areas.

“Aviation works. Tochka, We are at work. A whole range of artillery. They are advancing in all directions,” Roman Vlasenko of the Severodonetsk government said in televised comments on Friday.

However, the takeover of the entire Luhansk region – which seems imminent after the possible fall of Lysychansk – will not bring the victory that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants.

Months ago, Russian forces failed to take Kyiv and northern Ukraine, losing thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles, as they were accused of committing war crimes against civilians.

They withdrew in early April, and Putin said Russia would focus on conquering the Donbas region, including Luhansk and Donetsk.

But at least two-fifths of Donetsk, a much larger and more populous province, is still controlled by Ukrainian forces.

They’ve built extensive defense installations there since the rebels captured a third of Donetsk in 2014 — and it will be much harder to take them than to take Luhansk.

Meanwhile, the immediate economic impact of the loss of Luhansk is minimal.

The industrial core of Luhansk, with dozens of factories, power stations, and coal mines, has been under rebel control since 2014, while the part controlled by Kyiv was largely farmland.

The only industrial pockets there were the chemical and cellulosic plants in Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, and the city of Rubizhne, which had been taken over in early May.

The factories almost stopped working because of the hostilities and the shifting front line, said analyst Aleksey Kushch of Kyiv.

“The economic effect is miniscule,” he told Al Jazeera.

The loss of Mariupol, which served as the administrative capital of the Ukrainian-controlled part of Donetsk, was much more dramatic because the city was a crucial seaport with two giant steel plants that accounted for a significant portion Ukraine’s steel production, he said. †

Meanwhile, the fighting for Severodonetsk showed that Ukrainian forces could soon keep pace with Russian forces as Moscow lost reserves, morale, and reliable weapons.

“They are exhausted,” military expert Romanenko said of the Russians.

While Ukraine reorganized its forces after the defeat, the Kremlin maintained its widely criticized narrative that today’s Europe is similar to Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler.

“As World War II was about to begin, Hitler rallied a significant part, if not most of the European countries, for a war against the USSR,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday. Today, the European Union and NATO are gathering a coalition to wage war against the Russian Federation.

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