The big news is that the city of Popasna fell to the Luhansk Peoples Republic forces, working side by side with the Russian army, and not without some help from Kadyrov and his Chechens. The blogosphere was actually buzzing with this for a few days prior, but one had to wait patiently for the confirmation by the Russian army and mainstream media. Who are being very careful to hold back on triumphal announcements until everything is confirmed, so they don’t get egg on their face, by prematurely announcing victory. (Which happens sometimes.)
The fall of Popasna (Russian version of the name has an extra syllable: Popasnaya) is said to be a rather big deal and possibly even the breakthrough that the pro-Russian side has been
impatiently waiting for. This city is on a high ground, which allows its occupiers to see far into the distance, place their artillery and command the whole area in all directions. It is said that, he who commands this city has the open steppe as his oyster: He can move his forces either West or North at will, whichever (or both) gives the best tactical results. Especially given that the Russians control the airspace above the Ukraine, there is very little to stop them now from encircling the Ukrainian Donbass group with that giant cauldron that everybody has been talking about. Another important fact, which bloggers have drawn attention to, is that the Ukrainian commanders were actually given permission to withdraw from the city, instead of being forced to fight to the death against the pro-Russian forces. This is also considered a big deal, and possibly a turning point in the Ukrainian strategy as well. Showing some intelligent leadership, the Ukrainians were said to have withdrawn in a westerly direction, probably to defend the town of Bakhmut.
Popasna is located in the Severodonetsk Raion of the Luhansk Oblast. From what I understand, it is different from most Ukrainian cities in that the downtown area contains a lot of skyscrapers. Which made it a super-tough target, since LPR forces had to engage in urban combat and literally clear skyscrapers one storey at a time. One shudders to imagine how much damage was done to this urban landscape.
Brief History Of the City
From archaeological digs it is known that this area was settled almost 4,000 years ago! Some very resourceful humans lived near the Kartamysh Lake and were engaged in mining and working copper. By established trade routes their copper products ended up in distant places in the Caucasus and Urals. Over the millenia, this broad flat land on the open steppe was invaded and sometimes settled by many different peoples, including Polovtsy (=Cumans) and Tatar-Mongols, who built extensive burial sites. Over the centuries nomadic tribes came and went, conquering this land: Sarmats, Scythians, Pechenegs, you name it. Bulgars and Huns also came. The latter arrived from their original stomping ground in the Ural Mountains and stayed for 100 years near the Severo-Donetsk River, before moving further West. A royal visitor to this area was the Persian King Darius, who was chasing some Scythians but couldn’t catch them. In the 14th century Tamerlane also passed through, chasing after Khan Tokhtamysh, and also not catching him. This area was ruled, at times, by the Golden Horde and the Crimean Khanate.
Here ran the borderline between the Crimean Khanate and the Lithuanian Grand Princedom. Later it was the borderline between the Don Cossacks and the Zaporozhian Cossacks. Starting in the 16th century, the Moscow Tsars also began to turn their eyes in this direction, with thoughts of sending settlers to farm and raise cattle. The Ottoman Empire and its vassal, the Crimean Khanate, were alarmed at Moscow’s intent to bring Russian landowners and serfs here. In fact, they decreed that nobody would be allowed to settle here. As a result, this whole area obtained the moniker of “Wild Fields” (Дикое поле).
Okay, so where did this place acquire its current name of Popasna? That’s also an interesting story. Version #1: It was good pasture-land so they started calling it “Popasnaya” (same Indo-European root pas- as in the English word “pasture”). This is according to historical chronicles dating from 1795-1802: “On the right bank of the river Popasny … the land is all black earth and clay-like…” Version #2: The word is actually a deformation from “Popovy” (priest-like) because, allegedly the Cossacks maintained an ikon of Nikolay the Miracle-Worker, and a local priest was always on call in these parts to service the Cossacks.
Either way, this town was purchased in 1795 by a Serbian officer of the nearby Bakhmut Hussar Regiment; his name was Avraam Rashkovich. He also purchased 62 serfs and brought them to live in the town. The town subsequently bore several different names, including Nadezhdina, or Kalino-Poposnaya, and belonged to private families. The modern history of Popasna begins in 1850 and is connected with the railroad and steam engine (of course!)
After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks captured Popasna and created a Red Army unit from proletarians working on the railroad. In 1918 the German army pushed the Soviets out and exploited this fruitful area for its cattle, grain, and coal. Eventually the Ukrainian Nationalist Petliura came to power, and this entire hub (Bakhmut – Popasna – Slavyanoserbsk) was under the Hetmanate of Ataman Yemelyan Volokh. Fierce battles were fought here between the Ukrainians, the Soviets and the White Army. Eventually, towards the end of 1919 Soviet cavalry under Budyonny recaptured the town for the Reds. In 1938 the town was renamed to Kaganovich. During the Great Patriotic War the town was occupied by the Nazis. Was liberated on September 3, 1943, and got its old name back: Popasna. And was an important urban hub of the Ukrainian SSR.
By the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, Popasna contained around 30,000 citizens. It went to the Ukraine, of course, but then briefly seceded in 2014 to join the Luhansk Peoples Republic. But was very soon recaptured by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and remained under Ukrainian control until yesterday. (Officially.)
A Turning Point?
The reporter of the piece I already linked (above) is Andrei Rezchikov. He interviews a military expert who describes what happened. He gives their due to the Ukrainian soldiers who fought courageously. The fighting continued for over a month, was fierce and cruel, house to house, building to building, and sometimes even room to room. But in the end, the Ukrainians lost and were forced to retreat.
Military expert Vasily Dandykin: “Popasnaya is a cornerstone city in the so-called Pavlodar arc; it is here that the communications, supply of munitions and fuel, all come together. […] This is a significant victory. This is the first step to the formation of a giant cauldron, in which the most professional and capable grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces — the Lvov 24th Mechanized Brigade — will be put into a position where they either surrender or get destroyed. […] Now that we have taken Popasnaya, our soldiers can solve the problem of Lisichansk, and then later, Severodonetsk.”
From Popasna the Russian/LPR forces can easily get to the transport hub in the city of Bakhmut. From which they can establish communications with Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. “I believe that those [soldiers] who liberated Popasna, displayed exemplary heroism. This was also understood by the Ukrainian side, which tried to hold on ferociously as long as they could. This is a very huge blow for the Ukrainian Armed Forces; but for Russia it is an important step to victory and to the liberation of the entire Donbass.”