Poor Vlad Putin. Despite his fake “annexation” of four Ukrainian oblasts, none under Russia’s full control, Ukraine’s military advances have continued unabated. If Russia looked incompetent and out of its depth before, the message is now even starker: Putin can’t defend Mother Russia. And if history tells us anything, it’s that defending the country is a Russian leader’s single most important job.
And Putin is failing it. I suspect we’ll see dramatic consequences of this failure.
Big picture, Ukraine notched massive gains in September:
Put another way, Ukraine retook 10% of the land Russia occupied in a single month. And October has started with a bang, with Ukraine clearing out the Russian presence in northern Donetsk oblast (the area around Lyman), pushing into Luhansk oblast east of Lyman, and now liberating hundreds of square kilometers in northern Kherson.
You can catch up on our weekend’s dramatic coverage if you’d like, here, here, here, here, and here. Let’s take a quick look at where things stand now.
Mark Sumner was kind enough to update his map despite having Mondays off.
The blue zone towns have either geolocated photos confirming their liberation, or there is consensus among Russian and Ukrainian Telegram sources. Yellow zone is the new front lines as Ukraine pushes down across that entire broad front. The biggest penetration is down the bank of the Dnipro river to Dudchany, where combat was ongoing overnight.
It’s not all roses; Russian Telegram had pictures and video of artillery-smashed Ukrainian column outside Davydiv Brid on the lower-left hand corner of this map. Ukraine will want to pincer those two yellow blobs. That would either trap Russian defenders in this corner of the front, or force them to abandon their prepared defensive positions and fall back closer to Kherson city, leaving behind new Russian lend-lease contributions for the Ukrainian army. Ukraine will undoubtedly keep advancing on Davydiv Brid until its Russian defenders run out of steam, ammunition, or the will to fight. Collapsing defensive lines don’t lend themselves to a strong fighting spirt.
Doing a quick and dirty measurement, Ukraine has liberated around 800 square kilometers (about 310 square miles) of territory on this front in around two days. And this isn’t Kharkiv, where Ukraine tricked Russia into looking elsewhere, allowing it to punch through thinly defended lines. This is exactly where Russia rushed all its defenses, as many as 40,000 troops, in well-prepared defensive emplacements on flat, open land where a wall of artillery can hamper any advances. The fact that Ukraine is finally advancing is a sign that Russian supply lines have been effectively degraded via HIMARS and long-range precision-guided artillery. Without functioning bridges, Ukrainian analysts have estimated that Russia can only supply about a quarter of what it needs via barges, helicopter, and through careful travel on broken bridges. And even that can be precarious work:
Mark’s updated map:
Lyman is bottom left of this map. There is a lot more blue on this map than just a few days ago.
Russian forces have chaotically retreated to new lines. As I noted yesterday, there are gruesome pictures of the aftermath as retreating Russians were slammed by artillery on their way out of Lyman. Don’t go looking for the pictures—I won’t even describe them. I literally had nightmares about them on Saturday night. And please do not post or describe in detail what you saw in the comments. There’s no need. Suffice to say that Russian losses were high, and I can’t imagine a more undignified way to go.
The biggest new news on this map is the liberation of Borova in the top left on the map. The town used to have a bridge connecting it with the Izyum side of the Oskil river. At some point that’ll be repaired. Here’s the current situation:
There are reports that that entire rail line from Kupyansk to Lyman (cut off at the very bottom of this map) is now in Ukrainian hands, but nothing is confirmed just yet. If not right now, it will be true within the next 12 to 24 hours. There is no reason for Russians to hold positions along the bank of the Oskil now that Borova has been liberated and Ukrainian troops are operating to the east.
Given the importance of rail lines, clearing the route from Kupyansk to Lyman is huge. The rail line to Svatove is equally enticing, as are the mass of roads that all converge on the town. This is the logistical hub for this entire mass of Russian-held territory. The rail line from Kupyansk has already been cut, but they may still be able to move freight from the south through Kreminna (yet another reason that town is critically important for Russia).
Once Ukraine liberates Svatove, Russia will need to abandon everything within a 25-40 kilometer radius (about 15-30 miles). Starobilsk at the right edge of the map above and the right circle below is the final prize, supplying the entire northeastern corner of Ukraine. Once Ukraine liberates that, all of northern Luhansk is immediately liberated.
Sorry for the old map, but I’m trying to get this up ASAP. You can see the logistical importance of Svatove and Starobilsk: Both host a major rail line, and both serve as hubs for their region’s road networks, radiating out like spokes on a wheel.
Starobilsk has one added importance: Once Ukraine liberates it, Russia will no longer be able to supply its war effort through Belgorod to the north of this map. It will have to reroute everything to feed their war machine from the east through Luhansk oblast and by freight shipping through the Azov Sea port cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk. It’s not an impossible task, but will require a massive effort to reorient all those supply lines while making the remaining lines more vulnerable to Ukrainian sabotage and interdiction.
Taking those two cities and the resulting Russian retreat that would follow that would return Ukraine another 13,000 or so square kilometers (5,000 square miles) of its land, most of it sparsely populated agricultural steppe. That would be about 12% to 15% of the land Russia currently occupies, which will look great on maps. Though, again, the real value here is in cutting all supply routes from Belgorod.
I should call this the “Luhansk front,” but really, all the action is in Bakhmut.
This is just pathetic, though a look at this map might show why Russia remains obsessed with it:
Again, look at the rail lines. If Russia were somehow able to conquer the line from Horlivka to Bakhmut to Siversk, it would have a solid logistical base upon which to push deeper into Ukrainian-held Donbas. So there’s logic to wanting to occupy Bakhmut.
The problem, of course, is that Russia isn’t even close to occupying any part of that line. And given the collapse of Russian lines in Kherson and up in the Tri-Oblast Area, this pipe dream appears even costlier than normal.
Of course, we’ve already seen why Russia persists: This part of the front is manned by Wagner mercenaries using prison fodder to probe and push forward. Wagner has been asked to reinforce other parts of the front and they publicly and haughtily refused on their Telegram channel, saying they were the only Russian force capable of advancing anywhere in the country. Meanwhile, Wagner’s CEO has obliquely criticized Putin (along with Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov) in recent days. He has his own agenda, which may literally be a design on the Russian leadership, and he’ll do his own thing.
Right now, that’s apparently banging his head against Bakhmut—not for military reasons, but for his own domestic machinations.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.