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Lyman, A Supply Hub In Eastern Ukraine, Is The Last Place A Russian Soldier Wants To Be Right Now

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The Oskil River, running north to south from Russia all the way to the Donets River in eastern Ukraine, is a natural defensive barrier.

So it made sense that, when a dozen eager Ukrainian brigades punched through fragile Russian lines outside the free city of Kharkiv the first week of September, the Russians retreated 30 miles east across the river.

If the Russian army weren’t exhausted from seven months of combat against an increasingly inventive and determined foe—and if the Kremlin hadn’t raided units in the east in order to reinforce the south, where a second Ukrainian counteroffensive also is underway—the Oskil defensive line might’ve held.

It didn’t. Now a key Russian supply hub is in danger farther to the south: the town of Lyman.

After crossing the Oskil, the Ukrainians kept right on pushing. Today, they hold at least five bridgeheads on the east side of the river.

Yes, the Kremlin has announced a nationwide mobilization and chaotically is drafting into army service potentially 300,000 men. No, these draftees won’t arrive in time—or, given the utter lack of training, in any condition—to save the Russian position east of the Oskil.

And that has huge implications for Russia’s hold on the northern part of Luhansk Oblast, which since 2014 has been under the control of pro-Russian separatists—and which now is subject to a sham “referendum” that purports to make the oblast officially part of Russia.

The Ukrainians are on the move across eastern Ukraine. Three prongs of their counteroffensive are poised to surround and cut off the Russian garrison in Lyman, a key railway hub through which rolls much of the supply for the Russian army in the east.

Russian forces east of Kharkiv now are falling back to a new defensive line threading a valley running from the town of Svatove in the north to Kremmina in the south, 25 miles away. A valley, surrounded on both sides by high ground, isn’t exactly a strong position for any defender.

The Russian air force in recent days has dialed up its sortie rate in the east in a desperate bid to save the beleaguered Russian ground forces, but stiff Ukrainian air-defenses have blunted the impact of these air ops. The Ukrainians shot down four Russian jets on Saturday alone.

The likeliest question now isn’t whether the Ukrainians capture Lyman, but when. Separate Ukrainian forces are rolling north across the Donets River from positions east of Lyman, north across the same river from positions west of Lyman and east across the Oskil from positions north of Lyman.

The northern gambit might be the most catastrophic for the Russians, as it’s a wide enough envelopment that it could cut off several battalions with thousands of troops. Or even more troops if the Kremlin manages to shove reinforcements into the area.

Mike Martin, a fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London, is betting on the latter. “Lyman looks like the old bait and switch,” he tweeted. “Drive flanks north and east of Lyman causing the Russians to reinforce this critical railroad junction. Then drive a much bigger encircling movement to trap the whole lot.”

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