Ukraine Faces Brutal Fight Against Russia in the East, Losing Men and Ground

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine – It all starts with a whistle, said Vladislav Goncharenko, a Ukrainian army sergeant, who described Russia’s relentless shelling.

“You’re in a trench,” he said, waiting in an ambulance full of other wounded soldiers. “There are very loud explosions. You want to go deeper into the ground. And you have shrapnel whistling overhead like flies.”

Soldiers, he said, “just want it to stop.”

While much of the world’s attention in the war has focused on Russia’s disorganized and flawed campaign, Ukraine is also struggling. The Ukrainian army has suffered heavy casualties, shows signs of disarray and has retreated step by step from some long-occupied areas in Donbas, the eastern region that is now the epicenter of the war.

The momentum Ukraine sparked after pushing back Russian troops from Kiev, the capital, and Kharkov, the second-largest city, has given way in the east to weeks of give-and-take villages, heavy shelling – and a flood Ukrainian dead and wounded from the battlefields.

Ukraine’s troops now face a Russian force that has shifted its strategy from the hasty, reckless advance of the war’s early weeks to a stealthy, abrasive march made possible by massive artillery bombardments.

On Wednesday, Russian troops advanced in street fighting in the ruins of the city of Sievierodonetsk, a prime target of their offensive. A local official said on Wednesday that Russian forces had controlled about 70 percent of the city, where only about 12,000 remain of a pre-war population of 100,000 after weeks of intense shelling.

Ukrainian soldiers there run the risk of being surrounded. With bridges over the Seversky Donets River destroyed or under fire, supplies have grown weak.

Ukrainian officials are candid about the military’s tribulations, claiming that faster deliveries of Western weapons will solve them. Every day in the current heavy fighting, President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an interview with Newsmax this week, 60 to 100 Ukrainian soldiers are killed and about 500 more are wounded in fighting.

In his late night address, Mr. Zelensky said the battle for control of the Donbas region was “very difficult”, but emphasized that his forces were successful in the south, at Kherson and around Zaporizhia, and around Kharkov in the northeast.

“The situation on the front lines needs to be assessed extensively,” he said. “Not through one area, which is the most difficult situation and attracts the most attention, but across the front line.”

To fill the gaps on the frontline, Ukraine has resorted to deploying minimally trained volunteers from the Territorial Defense Force, which mobilized quickly as the war began. Hints of moral decay have surfaced. A unit recorded a video protesting the appalling conditions. In interviews, soldiers said their artillery guns sometimes stall for lack of ammunition.

“The people who said the war would end soon, that we have already won, that we will celebrate it in April, said something dangerous,” Ukraine’s national security adviser Oleksiy Danilov told Ukrainian media this week.

In the messy see-saw battles on the rolling plains of the East, Ukrainian troops are propped up by the promise that Western weapons will soon arrive.

On Tuesday, President Biden announced plans to give Ukraine multiple missile launch systems, a powerful long-range artillery weapon. US and Ukrainian officials have said the systems are not intended to attack targets in Russia.

On Wednesday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany promised to send an advanced air defense system and a tracking radar to locate Russian artillery. Mr Scholz was criticized by Ukraine and some German lawmakers for not doing enough to support the Ukrainian military. He did not disclose a timeline for the new shipments.

With the arrival of new weapons systems at best in a few weeks, it is unclear whether they will land in Ukraine in time to fend off the Russians’ slow advance. Last week, Ukraine was forced out of positions it had defended during eight years of war with Russia-backed separatists near the city of Svitlodarsk.

Throughout the war, the state of the Ukrainian military was difficult to assess from publicly available sources. When the war started, the Ukrainian army had deployed about 30,000 troops to the Donbas region, but neither the government nor the military can provide a current figure.

The Ukrainian government has largely withheld casualties, and Western governments have not voluntarily made their own assessment of the military’s difficulties, as they have in describing Russia’s setbacks. The latest update on Ukrainian casualties came on April 16, when Mr. Zelensky said fewer than 3,000 soldiers had died, but his comments on casualties last week suggest the figure is much higher now.

Ukraine is also hampered by the decline and depletion of its Soviet-legacy artillery, said Mykhailo Zhirokhov, the author of a book on Ukrainian artillery. The worn barrels fire less accurately. The shells are running out. Western replacements are coming, but slowly.

The morale of volunteer fighters also proves to be a challenge, at least in some units. Many who had joined the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Force in the early days of the war believed that their task would be limited to defending their hometown. There were teachers, computer programmers, taxi drivers and others, most with no battlefield experience.

Now they are being used in vicious fighting in the east, an indication of Ukraine’s increasing demand for frontline fighters.

A law passed on May 3, after many volunteers had already signed up, allowed them to be involved in fighting outside their home region.

Some are only trained after arriving at the front to fire heavy machine guns, anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers, because the weapons are only available there, Serhiy Sabko, the chief of general staff of the Territorial Defense Force, told Ukrainian authorities last month. media. “We are forced to provide extra training” at the front, he said.

Meanwhile, the pressure on military families is becoming apparent.

In Lviv, a city in the West that has avoided serious shelling, wives and mothers of men from the 103rd Territorial Defense Brigade have protested, terrified at the deployment of their husbands and sons in battle in the East. To allay the concerns, a commander, Vitaliy Kupriy, met about 200 women in a concert hall, but the conversation turned into screaming and crying, local media reported.

In interviews in ambulances evacuated from the front, about a dozen wounded Ukrainian soldiers said artillery was the cause of most of the casualties. They reiterated Ukrainian officials’ call on the West to transfer more long-range artillery to counter Russian bombing raids.

“It’s a weapon I can’t stand as a gunner,” Sergeant Goncharenko said of the Russian artillery.

He was injured in a barrage on the northern edge of the front around Sievierodonetsk, which toppled a tree over the trench in which he was sheltering. He suffered a concussion that left him dizzy, vomiting and unable to fight.

The Russians mix artillery barrages with sounding maneuvers by infantry or armored vehicles, identifying new targets by approaching Ukrainian lines and drawing fire. The maneuver is called “reconnaissance to contact”.

Ukrainians open fire on the intruding Russians, causing casualties. “We are collecting their dead,” said Sergeant Goncharenko.

But once he established Ukrainian positions, he said, the Russians withdrew and fired artillery.

Russia has also paid high costs. On Tuesday, US officials estimated that: the total combat power of the Russian army had decreased by about 20 percent. The end of March, NATO estimated that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian troops had been murdered.

Still, prior to the advance, Russian artillery destroyed towns and cities and forced about 80 percent of the population of Ukraine-controlled areas in the Donbas to flee. Russian soldiers end up taking ruins.

“The only way they will occupy Donbas is to reduce it to rubble,” said political analyst Maria Zolkina. “If they conquer Donbas, it will be without cities” or people.

Some military analysts see no clear end for the time being, and US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken predicted “many months of conflict” ahead on Wednesday. It is unlikely that Russia will soon conquer the claimed borders of two separatist states whose independence it recognized in February. And Ukraine seems far from ready for a counterattack to turn the tide.

“This is a war in which territory will change hands, there is no logical stopping point in the conflict and there is no stalemate,” Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia, said in a telephone interview. . “This is going to be a longer war.”

Sergeant Bohdan Yermak, whose lungs were damaged by the blast wave when a tank shell exploded nearby, said Ukrainian commanders sometimes call for strikes, but artillery batteries are unable to carry out the orders due to a lack of ammunition. “They say they are saving ammunition for a rainy day,” he said.

Long-range weapons and ammunition and related military aid packages from the United States and European allies will help, he said based on his experience at the front.

For the time being, said Sergeant Mykola Pokotila, who was wounded in a battle north of the city of Sloviansk, Ukrainian soldiers in the east are being ambushed and undergoing punitive artillery barrages. “I’ve never seen such hell.”

Maria Varenikova and Michael Levenson reporting contributed.

SOURCE – www.nytimes.com

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