Ukraine war: What's Putin's plan now that Luhansk is gone?

Russia moves forward once again.

Ukraine war: What's Putin's plan now that Luhansk is gone?

Russia moves forward once again. Ukraine pulls back once more.

According to the regional governor, the strategic withdrawal was able to prevent the long and intense battle for Lysychansk.

Serhiy Haidai said to me that Russia currently has a significant advantage in ammunition and artillery. They would have destroyed it at a distance so it was pointless to stay.

This seems to be consistent with Russian accounts of the capture and movement of the city. Social media videos posted Sunday showed Chechen fighters dancing within the central districts.

They might even celebrate. Russia's capture of Lysychansk signifies that Russia has effectively taken all of Luhansk, which was a key strategic goal of President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

What does this mean for both the battle for Donbass and the wider war?

Let's begin from the Ukrainian perspective. They believed that the most important thing was to avoid encirclement. This was evident in Mariupol. While the Russian advance was slowed by their defense of the southern port city, it was still slow enough to see thousands of highly skilled soldiers from the Ukrainian army being killed or captured.

Ukraine wanted to avoid this at all costs.

This was the explicit statement of President Zelensky in his nightly address. He told the nation, "We will rebuild our walls, we will regain land, but people have to be saved before all else."

Serhiy Haidai also made the exact same point. He said to me, "Our troops have retreated into more fortified posts... We held Luhansk's defense for five months." We were also building new fortifications within the Donetsk area while that defense was in place. The troops are now there."

Writing a few hours after the fall of Lysychansk, presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych even went as far as calling the defence of Lysychansk-Severodonetsk "a successful military operation".

Although it may seem odd that the Russian flag is flying above both cities now, his point was that they were playing a long-term game and buying time.

This logic can be understood if you understand the importance of Western weapons for Ukraine's resistance. They would be even more in trouble if they didn't have the NATO supplies.

They can deter the Russian advance for longer periods of time, allowing them to bring more advanced rocket and artillery systems to the fight. The US-provided HIMARS are already in operation and can radically change the balance of the conflict. More supplies equals more time, which, in turn, tilts the balance in their favor, especially since sanctions make it difficult for Russia to replace its old hardware and ammunition.

Let's now look at the Russian perspective. They say they want to capture the Donbas, but their stated goal is "liberation". That is one step closer with Luhansk.

Its significance was highlighted today by President Putin, who made the commanders of offensive "Heroes of Russia", Russia's highest award.

What's the next step? They will likely continue to push for the takeover of the Donbas, particularly the cities Kramatorsk and Sloviansk which were both shelled recently. Sloviansk, the location of the 2014 first uprisings, is thought to be of particular importance to the separatist movement.

The wider Russian strategy is unclear beyond that. Much will depend upon the status of their forces, if and when they take over the Donbas.

Today, President Putin acknowledged this tacitly. He stated: "The units who took part in active hostilities in the Luhansk direction and won success and victory should certainly rest and enhance their combat capabilities."

They could make further advances if they continue to make rapid progress, possibly even to the capital city of Dnipro.

However, if they feel exhausted, as Putin suggested, it is possible that they will end the "special military operations", Russia's abbreviated term for full-scale war.

They may hope that a unilateral ceasefire will take some steam out the international support for Ukraine with some, possibly France, pushing for peace.

While Ukraine would continue to fight, it is possible that without steady weapons supply, the frontline could become a frozen conflict much like it was between 2014-2022. Russia would be happy to keep its neighbor in turmoil and unrest.

Both sides claim they are in control, but for now none of these is certain. It is important to note that although Ukraine is currently on the back foot within the Donbas, recent victories include retaking Snake Island where the blue and yellow flags were once again raised.

We can only be certain that this war will not end soon. The Donetsk people are likely to be the first to feel its effects.

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