Judging by what remains of the children’s playground at the Druzhkivka Cultural Center, the Russian military still has plenty of artillery for its campaign to seize Ukraine’s Donbass region.
he town was brought to a rude awakening by thunderous explosions yesterday, as four rockets landed just a mile from this reporter’s hotel.
One rocket demolished the supermarket, while another blasted a 3m-deep crater in the cultural center’s playground, decapitating the statue of a Soviet worker.
“This cultural center is used for humanitarian deliveries,” fumed an aid worker, as he retrieved crates of food punctured by shrapnel.
“Thank goodness that didn’t happen yesterday when there were kids in the playground and families queuing for food parcels.”
The shelling was a glimpse of what every city in Donbass captured by the Kremlin has faced so far – relentless shelling from afar, designed to force Ukrainian civilians and military into submission.
He has already won the Severodonetsk City Kremlin, his biggest prize in the Donbass so far. And according to Vladimir Putin, it will win them the rest of eastern Ukraine and maybe even Kyiv too.
“Everyone should know that we haven’t started anything in earnest yet,” he boasted last week. Meanwhile, his close ally Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said Russia was still planning the “denazification” of Ukraine, suggesting regime change was still on the cards.
So can Russia succeed in taking the rest of Donbass? And at what cost for himself and for Ukraine?
In terms of raw military power, Russia is slowly winning, simply by throwing far more artillery at the Ukrainians than they can throw back.
“They are concentrating on Donbass with a big hammer artillery and then mounting short attacks with their surviving ground forces,” said Ben Barry, senior land warfare researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“This creates a dilemma for Ukraine, because to repel attacks from Russian ground forces, they need to concentrate their own troops, rather than disperse them, making them more vulnerable to artillery.”
However, the Russian war machine is a triumph of quantity over quality. The battle to take Severodonetsk alone required around 30,000 soldiers, using 20,000 artillery shells per day and costing the lives of around 7,000 Russians.
Far from being routed, Ukraine staged a steady tactical withdrawal, forcing the Russians into grueling urban combat where Ukrainian forces – a third the size – held the advantages.
Among those who fought in Severodonetsk was Issac Olvera, a former US Marine now serving as a volunteer with the Ukrainian International Brigade.
“It was incredibly intense fighting – the Ukrainians paid a heavy price there, but so did the Russians,” he said. “It is perfectly acceptable to withdraw tactically, while tying up the enemy to erode morale.
“Meanwhile, Ukraine is gaining critical time to allow some of the biggest Western artillery pieces to reach the battlefield.”
The Kremlin’s territorial gains are also limited.
Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews, points out that even if the Russians also take Sloviansk, the total area captured will only be the size of Greater London. And far from ramping up, the Kremlin has to fight for every inch.
If Putin wants to reach Kyiv, it may not be a sprint but a marathon, where every step is agony.
Already, for example, one wonders how long the Russians can continue to throw 20,000 shells a day at their problems.
“That’s a huge amount – around half of the entire British Army heavy artillery stockpile,” Mr Barry said.
And as the Kremlin learned the hard way during its botched siege of Kyiv, the more land occupied, the more there is to defend against attacks by Ukrainian infantry. To that end, Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s Defense Minister, said in May that the country was forming a standing army of one million.
Meanwhile, Russia still has a lot to achieve in the Donbass. Illia Ponomarenko, Kyiv’s respected defense correspondent Independent newspaper, points out that, so far, none of the Ukrainian “large military groups” in the region have been destroyed or even surrounded.
Finally, there is the cost in human lives. Ukraine’s casualties are estimated at around 20,000, with Russia as many as double. Although Ukraine’s death has caused anguish, its people still seem behind the war.
There were no protests and few influential voices calling for concessions to end the bloodshed.
It is true that there were none in Russia either. But in a country that no longer tolerates dissent, it is difficult to be certain of the extent of the rising discontent.
“The next few months will be a turning point,” said Mr. Olvera, currently back in the United States. “I expect Ukraine to grow stronger, while Russia weakens, with a crumbling economy, sanctions undermining their military capabilities, and morale and discipline issues becoming even more severe.”
It remains to be seen how much more of Donbass will be in Russian hands. But in a vote of confidence in Ukraine’s abilities, Mr Olvera plans to return to help defend it.
“The Ukrainians did much better than I expected,” he said. “As hard as it has been so far, it encouraged me to go back.”