Russia rushed its fake “referendums” in the occupied territories for a simple reason: Vladimir Putin continues to resist declaring formal war, so pretending that Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts are “Russia” will allow him to both deploy conscripts to the region (Russian law does not allow their deployment outside Russian soil), as well as enable nuclear brinkmanship.
There is a weird belief among nationalist pro-Russian Telegram bloggers that doing so will also allow Russia to wage “real war,” as they are under the belief that Russia has somehow “held back.” Their evidence is that Ukrainian centers of power—the presidential palace, legislative chambers, and Ministry of Defense—haven’t been hit, and that Russia has been somewhat restrained from systemically degrading Ukraine’s rail network (and with it, the steady supply of Western arms). That observation is not without merit—the lack of attacks on Kyiv government buildings is indeed weird. But the rail situation? That’s just a matter of priorities—Russia prefers lobbing its rockets and missiles at civilian apartment buildings and bus stops, rather than valid military targets like rail networks. There really isn’t much left that Russia can do that it hasn’t already done, other than low-yield “tactical” nuclear weapons. That’s a line I’d wager Russia won’t actually cross, even as Ukrainian intelligence rates the chances as “very high.” (It’s a bet I’d hate to lose.)
The real danger of Putin’s decision to annex those territories (assuming he goes through with it, he is erratic after all) is that he will inevitable look weak, unable to defend Mother Russia herself, and if a Russian leader can’t defend its own territory, what good is he? Yet Russia doesn’t fully control any of the four oblasts, and he’s steadily losing ground by the day. In fact, his forces are on the verge of being routed in Lyman, a key roadblock to Ukrainian control of the entirety of Kharkiv oblast, and a gateway into northern Luhansk.
Russian war propagandist WarGonzo is already fleeing the area.
He further reported (Telegram’s in-app translation):
This night will be decisive for Krasny Lyman. Some may skeptically say “once again”. But we reliably assert, relying on several reliable sources at once – it has never been so tough and so dangerous there. In addition to the breakthrough, to the Headquarters and the actual blockade of Drobyshev, fragmentary information was added that the battles for Yampol had also begun. Ticks around Lyman can close at any moment. There are still people there, including fighters of the NM DPR and the Russian Army. Drama to the situation is added by the fact that tomorrow, according to the idea, should be a solemn and historic day. Therefore, God forbid that the tragedy does not happen! We pray for you, our Heroes!
This is what it looks like on a map:
WarGonzo says the battle of Yampil has “begun,” while other pro-Russian sources have declared it lost to the Ukrainian advance. They report that Stavky, also circled above, has already been recaptured by Ukraine. That cuts off Drobysheve and Derylove from their supply route east to Zarichne, while the road south to Lyman is already cut. The Russian defense in those two towns are fully cut off, and it’s reported to be a sizable garrison.
Lyman still has its road to Zarichne, but with Yampil either liberated or under extreme pressure, that road won’t be open for much longer, and it is already under Ukrainian “fire control” (covered by artillery and mortar fire). Either the Lyman garrison flees (hopefully in faster and more reliable civilian vehicles, donating all the good stuff to the Ukrainian army), or they will also be encircled soon. Parsing WarGonzo’s report, I’d guess Russian forces will try to flee under cover of darkness. We’ll know for sure tomorrow.
Given Ukraine has already recaptured more than 1,000 square kilometers and liberated 50 settlements this week alone, the collapse of Russia’s biggest stronghold in this entire corner of the front would be a momentous strategic accomplishment, and an amazing propaganda victory overshadowing Putin’s grand speech on Friday.
Let’s pull the map back:
Russia is pinning the defense of that entire red corner of Ukraine on Lyman, circled on the bottom-left of this map. By all indications, there’s nothing much behind it. That’s why Russia is rushing newly conscripted troops into Ukraine with 0-1 days of training. They have nothing else to try and hold that line. Yet those warm bodies won’t be more than an inconvenient speed bump once Ukraine breaks Lyman’s defenses and walks away with several hundred more trophy armored vehicles—Russia’s lend-lease for the Ukrainian army.
Post Lyman, the first prize is Svatove, and Russian sources claim Ukraine is already marching in that direction. There are no natural barriers to slow the Ukrainian advance, nor, apparently, Russian air defenses.
Russia’s regional logistics are already severely challenged. Svatove’s rail line was cut at Kupiansk. It has to be supplied via Starobilsk, then 62 kilometers via truck to Svatove, and then more trucks to feed the rest of the front. Russia does trucks poorly, and struggles beyond 25 kilometers of a railhead. Liberate Svatove, and supplying what’s left of Kharkiv oblast becomes practically impossible. Liberate Svatove, and Starobilsk is a wide-open straight shot, with zero natural obstacles save mud season.
Liberate Starobilsk … look at the map—every single road and rail line in the region crosses at Starobilsk. Like … a star. (“Star” means “old” in Russian. It’s still an apt name for the town.) Liberate it, and Russia can’t supply anything in that entire massive plot of sparsely populated agricultural steppe. That’s another 10,000 square kilometers Ukraine could liberate before turning its attention toward the parts of Donbas Russia occupied prior to the February invasion. And while turning all that empty space Ukrainian colors will look great on a map, doing so has immense strategic value—cutting that rail line would mark the end of Belgorod’s status as Russia’s main supply hub for the war, requiring a complete rerouting to somewhere else, to Ukraine’s east.
Something is weird is going on, regarding Russia’s nuclear threats.
And it’s not just state television. This is RT:
It’s as if there’s a general deescalation of such irresponsible threats. Hopefully that’s a good sign, but Putin logic doesn’t seem to follow actual logic.
Forget “operationally surrounded.” Multiple pro-Russian Telegram accounts report that as of midnight, local time, Ukraine is fully surrounded.
BARS are Russian reservist units, LPR are the fake “Luhansk People’s Republican” proxies, and they mean the 20th Combined Arms Army. “Boiler” is a funny translation of “cauldron,” which is exactly what it sounds like—a strategically large concentration of trapped enemy forces. “Boiler” actually works as well. Estimates are that Russians had 2,500-3,500 troops inside the city, and they are now fully cut off from escape. No reason for Ukraine to engage in costly street-by-street urban fighting. They can keep a blocking force to keep them contained while the main spearhead keeps moving.