The situation at the front is changing very quickly. The russian army continues to actively advance in the Donbas and has already occupied almost the entire territory of the Luhansk oblast. The main news of the last days or even weeks is the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Sievierodonetsk. At the same time, the AFU have already begun counteroffensive operations in the south of Ukraine and have advanced more than 10 km towards Melitopol.
In an interview with OstroV, military expert, retired colonel and former employee of the main operational department of the General Staff (2003-2006) Oleh Zhdanov spoke about the withdrawal of the AFU from Sievierodonetsk, why negotiations are now beneficial for the russian federation and when active hostilities can end.
Situation in the Donbas
- You have repeatedly stated that the AFU will be able to hold Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. Now Ukrainian troops are leaving their positions in Sievierodonetsk. Why did it happen?
- I said that a withdrawal from Sievierodonetsk is possible, and we need to look at the reaction of the General Staff of Ukraine, how profitable it will be to keep this city. As of today, Sievierodonetsk has fulfilled its task, we have exhausted the enemy and inflicted huge losses on them. I would equate the losses of russian troops there with those they suffered in Mariupol.
Thanks to the courageous defense of Sievierodonetsk, russia has exhausted its offensive potential, and today we can say that a maximum of a week – and they will have a question of reserves. There will simply be no one to go on the offensive.
- But we leave part of the territory…
- Yes, we are leaving part of the territory, but we are withdrawing the army, which retains its combat effectiveness and controllability, and which can then return to liberate the same Sievierodonetsk.
- The russians say that over the past week, they gained control over 11 settlements in the Luhansk region, including Hirske and Zolote. They call it a big success. Do you agree with this?
- I would not say that they gained control over them in one week. The russians fought there for six weeks, and then we decided to withdraw. If this is a success for the russian army, then this is how it can be formulated. Zolote and Hirske generally held out from the first day of the war, that is, more than 4 months. And today, when we decided to leave them, the russians call it a success.
- How critical are these losses for Ukraine in strategic terms?
- Not critical at all. At the very beginning, there was an assumption that we could leave Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. It certainly hurts us to leave our territories.
We have grown accustomed to the horror of war. I want to remind you that we lost part of the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Zhytomyr, Sumy and Kharkiv oblasts in the first week of a full-scale invasion. When we retreated at that time, it was a defense. Now we are leaving a few settlements and turning it into a tragedy… We forgot about the scale of the war.
We have successes in the Zapizhzhia, Kherson and Kryvyi Rih directions. There is already almost no movement of russian troops for a month. They can't move anywhere, there's a dead end for them. Therefore, I would not turn the tactical success of the russian army in the Luhansk oblast into an operational tragedy of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
- The russian media announced "the defeat of the Ukrainian group in the Hirske mousetrap", they publish footage of captured Ukrainian soldiers. Was it really a "mousetrap"?
- It's fantasy. The same Ministry of Defense of the russian federation confirmed that only 41 Ukrainian servicemen were captured as a result of this "super operation". We left in an organized manner. The russians did not even understand how it happened that the group of troops simply disappeared under their noses. As for the 41 captured Ukrainian military, this is a war and, unfortunately, it cannot be without loss and captivity.
- Is mousetrap possible for the AFU in the Luhansk region?
- This threat was and it remains. But as of today, I estimate this probability as low. No matter what they do, they cannot move the front from Popasna towards Sieviersk, we constantly drive them out. The russians cannot block the Lysychansk-Bakhmut highway, we fight them off there as well. And while they have not passed this line, the threat of mousetrap is minimal.
- In your opinion, will the russians succeed in occupying the entire territory of the Luhansk oblast?
- I do not rule out that the russians will be able to occupy the entire Luhansk oblast. Of the strong points, only one city of Lysychansk remained there, there is nothing more to cling to. As for the Donetsk oblast, I deeply doubt that the russians will be able to capture it within the administrative boundaries.
The possible capture of the Luhansk oblast is the last spurt of the russian army in attempts to carry out offensive operations.
- Why is this so important to putin?
- For putin, this is a political goal. He himself described the "liberation" of these oblasts as the main goal of the "special operation".
- Is it important for Ukraine to keep at least a piece of the Luhansk oblast?
- It is important for us to keep any of our territory. From the point of view of a military campaign, this is not so important. From a political point of view, it would be desirable to keep Lysychansk under our control. But whether it will be expedient is the question, because we reckon with losses, we save the army. We could stand there like we did in 1941, but that would be a crazy price.
If we do not save the army now, we will liberate nothing. And having saved the army, we will have the opportunity to conduct a counteroffensive. If not today, then tomorrow. Weapons are coming, the army is rearming, and our chances of a counteroffensive operation are gradually growing.
- How do you assess the situation in the Donetsk oblast?
- The situation in the Donetsk oblast is more stable than in the Luhansk. There, the russians have a very bad advance. Part of the Donetsk oblast is still holding on to the positions of the line of demarcation under the Minsk agreements – the russians have not advanced a millimeter there. They are trying to attack from the north (Izium), but there are no successes either.
We stand there firmly on the defensive, hold our lines and slowly grind the russian Armed Forces.
- If the russian troops succeed in capturing the entire territory of the Luhansk oblast, will all these forces be transferred to the Donetsk one?
- Of course. But I would pay attention to one feature: not all those forces, but what remains of them. Perhaps they will try to throw the rest of their forces into the Donetsk oblast, but I think that at that moment, they will have nothing to throw.
They need an operational pause to create new reserves. They have nothing to fight with today. May God grant them retaining the defense. As soon as they stop, we will begin counteroffensive operations. This is the last breath they gathered around Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, and what's next?
That is why today, lobbyists of the russian federation have come out of all the cracks, talking about the readiness of the russian side for negotiations.
- What is the point for putin to negotiate, if even the main goal of "liberating" the entire Donbas has not been achieved?
- It's not about the meaning, but about the circumstances. The situation at the front forces them to resort to negotiations. They have nothing to fight with. The russians faced the fact that they cannot remove equipment from storage. Even this idea is being abandoned.
- It technically turned out to be scrap metal. They need to launch the industry in order to put this equipment in order. Now they have rushed back to the military units and are trying to pull out the third battalions to create battalion tactical groups on their basis. But the same scrap metal is there. They do not know where to get such a quantity of equipment in order to form new battalion tactical groups.
- And what about the personnel?
- They completely sank with personnel and mobilization. The General Staff of the russian federation is well aware that the only infantry that can still fight is mercenaries. They are even trying to form a new tank army, which will be staffed by mercenaries who have signed contracts with private companies. In the russian federation, this is the only motivated category of people who are able to fight and hold the frontline. They plan to complete the formation of this army only by mid-August.
- And they need negotiations for an operational pause and accumulation of forces, don’t they?
- Yes, to temporize. Therefore, they are ready to talk about a ceasefire and sit down at the negotiating table.
- Which is not very profitable for us now.
- Exactly. Now we are not ready to sit down at the negotiating table, because the scales will begin to tip in our favor any minute now.
- What are your forecasts regarding the further development of the situation in Donbas?
- I think that in the Donbas, as well as in all other directions, the russians will soon go on the defensive. It is not their wish list. They will be forced to do this in order to somehow stabilize the situation. Although defense for them is the beginning of defeat. While the russians are advancing, they have incentives and meanings. As soon as they sit on the defensive, the fighters begin to ask questions: "What are we doing here?". And the front begins to sink.
If in mid-May, the russians brought several battalion tactical groups to Ukraine, today they have no one to bring. Well-coordinated, well-managed and combat-ready battalion tactical groups no longer come. They are now simply making up for losses by bringing in new people and arming them with machine guns. This suggests that the country is sorely lacking military resources.
- But we should not forget about their advantage in heavy weapons.
- Absolutely right. They have a numerical advantage in terms of fire damage. But not in quality. The russian artillery begins to fire more or less accurately when they manage to send a drone and accurately determine the coordinates of our positions. I other cases, artillery hit the areas, that is, they take a piece of some area and simply shell it.
By the way, such a reckless and large consumption of ammunition is already limited. They are experiencing a shortage in the supply of ammunition, as logistics are sinking. In addition, they have a huge wear of artillery. There are cases when tubes are torn due to exceeding wear and tear standards.
- Let's talk about the frequent statements of some officials and experts about the counteroffensive in southern Ukraine. Some of them are talking almost about the AFU on the streets of Kherson. How realistic is this? What is happening there?
- It is very bad that some people of our people allow to make some statements without a more or less official source. In the Kherson direction, we are conducting counteroffensive actions in several directions in order to improve our positions and create a springboard for a future counteroffensive.
There is no counteroffensive near Kherson.
- And where are our troops?
- Let's just say, according to semi-official information, Ukrainian troops are located 15-17 km from Kherson. Yes, the city is already visible through binoculars, but there is no information at all where exactly our positions are. However, there is some success there and some counteroffensive actions. That's all to say for now.
- What can you say about the counteroffensive in general?
- It is tied to the supply of weapons. According to the statements of Valerii Zaluzhnyi, as of today, there is no talk of counteroffensive. We need to successfully complete the defensive operation that is currently underway in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
As soon as the russian offensive potential is over, and they go on the defensive in all directions, then the positional war will begin, which will precede our counteroffensive.
- Why, when talking about the counteroffensive, most often, this is about the south of Ukraine? Is counteroffensive possible in the Donbas?
- This is self-deception. People think that since active hostilities are underway in the Donbas and the situation there is difficult, then what kind of counteroffensive can we talk about. And in the south, the situation is calmer, so the counteroffensive is allegedly more realistic there. That is why such a picture is created. Counteroffensive is also possible in the Donbas, when the russians will switch to the defense there and begin to dig trenches with shovels, as near Kherson.
- If putin takes Donbas and annexes it to the russian federation, how difficult and realistic will it be to release it then?
- What does it change? Absolutely nothing. This "annexation" does not change anything. But the illegal annexation of the territory will greatly accelerate the seventh package of sanctions against the russian federation, and this is a gas embargo.
They postponed the "referendum" on Kherson until September. They sometimes bring up this topic, trying to check out the situation for a reaction from the West. But the West will not remain silent. It is categorically set on the maximum weakening of russia.
- Can the Belarusian army enter in the war against Ukraine?
- I estimate this probability 50 to 50. And I am more inclined to believe that Lukashenko will try to dodge and not join this war. For him, this will be equal to political death, up to and including physical elimination. Anti-war sentiments in the Belarusian society are growing day by day.
But the russian army will continue missile attacks on Ukraine from the territory of Belarus.
- How critical is the entry of Belarus in the war for us?
- This is just another problem, but I do not see any criticality in it. The situation in the Belarusian army can change dramatically after the first combat clash, the first blood and the first losses. We already have combat experience, but Belarus has never been at war. They saw blood and corpses only when they were loading russian soldiers. The Belarusian army was involved to ensure the actions of the russian army during the war. They reloaded the wounded and dead and washed russian equipment from blood and remains.
- What are your forecasts for the coming months?
- There will be a positional war in the coming months. Plus massive russian attacks to force us into the negotiation process.
- Head of the Main Directorate of Intelligence Kyrylo Budanov stated that the turning point in the war would take place in August, and by the end of the year, hostilities would drop to almost zero. Do you agree with this?
- In principle, it is possible to agree with this. But forecasting is generally a thankless task. I always tie my forecasts to the arrival of weapons. As soon as we receive weapons in large quantities and we have the opportunity to form a virtually new army, then we can talk about the timing of the counteroffensive operation and the end of the hot phase of the war.
The only thing I can say with certainty is that the war will last for months, not years.
- Sounds optimistic.
- I'm trying to justify it all. You understand that russia did not prepare for this war. It is not ready to fight to the point of exhaustion. It can only do this for a few months. Only russia is exhausted more than we. Ukraine constantly receives military-technical assistance, and the reserves of the russian federation do not even provide it with the possibility of waging a long-term war.
- Mobilization in the russian federation can turn the tide?
- Mobilization in the russian federation will be a disaster for the russian authorities. They became hostages of their own propaganda. Russians talk about how they destroyed a thousand planes in Ukraine over the past week. This most powerful propaganda machine created the illusion of victory in the russian society. They are about to win, Berlin just about to fall tomorrow.
Now imagine how putin comes out and announces mobilization. The russians, who firmly believe in victory, will have the broken patterns. And there are almost 80% of them. It will be a social upheaval. The townsfolk are already asking the authorities why the so-called special operation has been going on for four months.
There are more and more "funerals"; wounded soldiers are being discharged from hospitals, returning home and telling what is really happening. Even the depressed regions begin to understand that this is not just a special operation, but a bloody war, that Ukraine is fighting for its territory and is causing significant damage. And no one can win the word-of-mouth marketing, which spreads at the speed of light.
Interviewed by Vladyslav Bulatchik, OstroV