Russia regains the upper hand in eastern Ukraine under the flag of kyiv’s troops

Russia regains the upper hand in eastern Ukraine under the flag of kyiv’s troops

The Ukrainian soldier was looking at the Russian tank. It was destroyed more than a year ago in the east of the country and is now far from the front line. He shrugged and cut away the rusty hull with a gas torch.

The soldier was not there for the tank’s engine, turret or tracks. These had already been recovered. He was there for his thick armor. The metal would be cut and tied to protect Ukrainian armored personnel carriers defending the besieged town of Avdiivka, about 105 kilometers away.

The need to cannibalize a destroyed Russian vehicle to help protect Ukraine’s dwindling equipment reserves underscores Kiev’s current challenges on the battlefield as it prepares for another year of pitched combat.

“If our international partners had acted more quickly, we would have kicked their ass so hard in the first three or four months that we would have recovered by now. We would sow fields and raise children,” the soldier, who gave his name as Jaeger, said in accordance with military protocol. “We would send bread to Europe. But it’s already been two years.

Ukraine’s military prospects appear bleak. Western military aid is no longer provided at the same levels as in past years. Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive in the south, where Jaeger was wounded days after it began, is over, having achieved none of its objectives.

And now Russian troops are attacking, especially in the east of the country. The town of Marinka has practically fallen. Avdiivka is slowly surrounded. A push on Chasiv Yar, near Bakhmut, is expected. Further north, outside Kupiansk, fighting has barely slowed since the fall.

The joke among Ukrainian troops is: the Russian army is neither good nor bad. It’s just long. The Kremlin has more of everything: more men, ammunition and vehicles. And they do not stop despite the increasing number of injuries and deaths.

But the soldiers’ joke contained another certain truth. Neither side distinguished itself by tactics that allowed a breakthrough on the battlefield. Instead, it’s a deadly dance of small technological advances on both sides that have yet to turn the tide, leaving a conflict that resembles a modernized version of the Western Front of World War I: mass against mass.

It is this tactic that gives Russia the advantage as it strives to secure Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, Moscow’s main war objective after its 2022 defeat around Kharkiv, Kherson and the capital Kiev. Russia has a population three times that of Ukraine and its military-industrial base is operating at full capacity.

“The Russian advantage at this point is not decisive, but the war is not a stalemate,” said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who recently visited in Ukraine. “Depending on what happens this year, including Western support for Ukraine, 2024 will likely follow one or two trajectories. Ukraine could regain the lead by 2025, or it could start losing the war without enough aid.”

For now, Ukraine finds itself in a perilous position. The problems affecting his army have worsened since the summer. Ukrainian soldiers are exhausted from long periods of combat and shorter periods of rest. The ranks, diminished by increasing losses, are only partially replenished, often with older and poorly trained recruits.

A Ukrainian soldier, part of a brigade responsible for holding the line southwest of Avdiivka, pointed to a video he took recently during training. The instructors, trying to stifle their laughter, were forced to restrain the man, who was in his 50s, just so he could fire his rifle. The man was paralyzed from alcoholism, the soldier said, insisting on anonymity to candidly describe an episode of private training.

“Three out of ten soldiers who show up are no better than drunks who fall asleep and wake up in uniform,” he said, referring to the new recruits arriving in his brigade.

kyiv’s recruitment strategy was undermined by overly aggressive tactics and more widespread attempts to dodge conscription. Efforts to remedy the problem have given rise to a political debate between military and civilian leaders.

Military officials stress the need for broader mobilization to win the war, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office fears introducing unpopular changes that could result in a campaign to mobilize 500,000 new troops. That figure, analysts say, takes into account Ukraine’s huge losses and what will likely be needed to repel the Russians.

Although the number of Ukrainian casualties remains a closely guarded secret, U.S. officials over the summer estimated the number of dead and wounded at well over 150,000. Russian forces also suffered large numbers of casualties, according to these officials, but Kremlin forces still managed to repel a concerted Ukrainian counteroffensive, regroup and now launch their assaults in freezing winter conditions.

“We are tired,” said a Ukrainian platoon commander, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of his comments. “We could always use more people.”

The troop shortage is only part of the problem. The other, currently more pressing problem concerns Ukraine’s dwindling munitions reserves, while continued Western supplies remain anything but certain. Ukrainian commanders must now ration their ammunition, without knowing if each new delivery will be the last.

In late 2023, members of a Ukrainian artillery crew from the 10th Brigade sat inside a bunker nestled in a bare tree line in the east of the country, their 122-millimeter howitzer from the Soviet era draped with camouflage netting and leafless branches.

It wasn’t until a truck carrying two artillery shells arrived that the crew was able to get to work for the first time in days. They quickly loaded the shells and fired on Russian soldiers attacking Ukrainian positions five kilometers away.

“Today we had two shells, but some days we don’t have any in these positions,” said the crew commander, who goes by the name Monk. “The last time we fired was four days ago, and there were only five shells. »

Ammunition shortages – and changing battlefield dynamics – mean gunners are no longer supporting Ukrainian attacks. Instead, they only fire when Russian troops storm the Ukrainian trenches.

“We can stop them for now, but who knows,” Monk said. “Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, maybe we won’t be able to stop them. This is a really big deal for us.

Near Kupiansk, a deputy battalion commander of the 68th Brigade, which has the Italian call sign, echoed Monk’s concerns.

“I have two tanks, but only five shells,” Italian said, as he walked through a line of bare, shell-shattered trees about 500 meters from Russian positions in the Luhansk region. “The situation is bad now, especially in Avdiivka and Koupiansk.”

This ammunition imbalance was felt across much of the more than 600-mile front line, Ukrainian soldiers said. Russian units find themselves in a similar position as in the summer of 2022, where they can simply exhaust a Ukrainian position until kyiv’s forces run out of ammunition. But unlike this summer, there is no longer a frenzied rush in Western capitals to arm and re-equip Ukrainian troops.

And unlike this summer, drones have taken on a much larger presence in both camps’ arsenals – particularly FPV racing drones rigged with explosives and used as remote-controlled missiles.

These drones have supplemented traditional artillery as Russia and Ukraine struggle to stockpile enough shells to fight a prolonged and bloody war. Over the past nine months, the number of FPV drones has increased at least 10 times, and more casualties are caused by drones than by artillery on some parts of the front, Ukrainian soldiers said.

Even the U.S.-supplied tranche of cluster munitions, controversial because they harm civilians long after a war ends, have lost some of their potency on the battlefield.

“At first, in September, we could hit large groups, but now they are attacking in much smaller units,” said the platoon commander, who was fighting outside Bakhmut. He added that the Russians have made their trenches even deeper and more difficult to reach.

Outside Avdiivka, where Russian forces concentrate much of their force to the east, the roar of artillery on a recent afternoon was almost nonstop. It was a soundtrack not heard since the early months of the war, when Russian paramilitary forces attacked Bakhmut, eventually capturing him.

Soldiers defending Avdiivka’s flank said that on some days Russian formations attacked in nine separate waves, hoping that the Ukrainian trenches would fall back. This is a tactic replicated on the front by Moscow’s infantry, with little sign of stopping despite a high attrition rate, common for a force attacking entrenched positions.

Washington’s suggestion that Ukraine go on the defensive in 2024 will mean little if kyiv does not have the ammunition and men to defend the territory it currently holds, analysts say.

“Our men are being heavily shelled,” said Bardak, a Ukrainian soldier working alongside Jaeger next to the abandoned tank. “It’s hot everywhere now.”

Finbarr O’Reilly and New York Times staff contributed reporting.

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Eric D. Eilerman

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