Ukrainian troops inspect captured Russian T-80 tanks outside Kharkiv.

Ukrainian defense ministry photo

A month after launching a major counteroffensive outside the free city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian army is on the cusp of achieving one of its main near-term objectives—capturing the Russian logistics hub in the town of Lyman, just north of the Donets River 85 miles southeast of Kharkiv.

If and when Lyman falls—and it’s looking likely that could happen in the coming days—the Russian army will lose a critical railway juncture. Considering how heavily the Russians lean on trains for routine supply, losing Lyman is a big deal.

Without Lyman, the Kremlin will have to reconfigure its logistics in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. And while it does, many battalions currently clinging to defensive positions across the northern part of Donbas could starve and weaken.

The first couple weeks of Ukraine’s eastern counteroffensive were a rout. A dozen Ukrainian brigades punched through gaps in Russian lines—gaps that appeared when the Kremlin began shifting forces from the east to the south in order to meet another Ukrainian counteroffensive targeting Russian-occupied Kherson, a strategic port on the Black Sea coast.

In a heady two weeks, the Ukrainian brigades outside Kharkiv wrecked an elite Russian tank army as well as that army’s partner division—and also beat a large reserve formation that Moscow had spent the summer raising. Thousands of Russian troops fled east across the Oskil River, leaving behind hundreds of tanks, fighting vehicles and howitzers.

A frantic bid by the Russian air force to slow the Ukrainian advance ended in disaster for the Russians. Ukrainian air-defenses, including newly-delivered ex-German Gepard mobile guns, shot down four Russian jets in a single day on Saturday.

After clearing Kharkiv Oblast all the way to the Oskil River and crossing the river in at least five places in order to secure lodgements for future advances, Ukrainian brigades pivoted south toward Lyman. Separately, Ukrainian forces crossed the Donets River south and east of Lyman in order to begin an envelopment of the city.

That envelopment began to close on Thursday when, according to Russian correspondent Semyon Pegov, Ukrainian forces north of Lyman cut across the main road from Drobysheve to Torske, a few miles to the east. Drobysheve is a small settlement northwest of Lyman, and a key defensive position for the Russian garrison in the area. “The situation is extremely difficult,” Pegov wrote.

The roughly 3,000 Russian troops in Lyman might still have a way out—along the road to Zarichne, to the east—but the troops in Drobysheve, potentially hundreds of them, could struggle to escape. They’d need to travel south, likely while under fire, before turning east toward Zarichne.

The end game, in this sector of the front in a war with several fronts, is playing out by the hour. “There is a tough fight going on,” Pegov wrote. But the outcome isn’t really in doubt.

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