Two Cities, Two Armies: Turning Points on the War in Eastern Ukraine

DONETSK REGION, Ukraine — A Ukrainian soldier walks to the edge of the river, looks into the distance to the sound of artillery fire, and throws his fishing rod into the murky blue waters below. His indifference on the Ukrainian front line close to the eastern city of Lyman is telling: His comrades nearby have won.

To the southeast, less than 30 miles away, a group of Ukrainian soldiers, wearing rifles and helmets, cautiously moved toward the ruins of a destroyed bridge in the center of another city. – Bakhmut. The shrill sirens of a volley of Russian artillery, followed by a nearby cloud of smoke, sounded like a signal: The Russians were rushing, and approaching.

The battle for the vital Donbas region in eastern Ukraine is now centered on these two strategically important cities; The fighting rages as both armies race to claim new land before winter begins.

In the wider war, momentum remains with the Ukrainians, whose sweeping victories in the northeastern part of the country this month highlight the incompetence and obvious weaknesses of Russian forces. But Donbas, which Russian President Putin considers his main prize, is a different, more entrenched war.

Ukraine is working to recapture Lyman, a stretch of railway that serves as an important supply hub on the western edge of the Donbas. Russian forces control the city, but Ukraine is hoping to use it as a gateway to further east and maintain its momentum.

Bakhmut is an entrance to the part of the area still held by Ukrainian forces. Capturing it would also give Russia a victory after being defeated in the North. The Russians have not stopped shelling Bakhmut for the past three months.

The battle for Bakhmut and Lyman came to a strategic position for both sides before the front line stagnated in cold weather. If the cities come under Ukrainian control, Kyiv’s forces will be poised to regain lost territory in the coming months. Under Russian occupation, and with reinforcements, they would help Russia place the two major cities of Donbas – Kramatorsk and Sloviansk – under increasing threat and more frequent shelling.

In Lyman, the Ukrainians achieved some success. Their formation was attacking the city from the south and west and capturing the villages on the outskirts as they advanced.

Cut off from Russian supplies to the north after the recent invasion of Ukraine, Lyman was initially seen as a potential rapid conquest. However, Russian reinforcements have reached the city, Ukrainian soldiers say, and have slowed their advance, at least for now. And with the Ukrainian army focusing on Lyman, the Russian units had time to retreat further east.

“Things are changing very quickly here,” a Ukrainian soldier just south of the city said recently, requesting anonymity for security reasons. For the past week, Ukrainian forces have been fighting into the village of Shchurove, a small resort town near the city, nestled between dense forests and the River Siversky Donets.

Russian forces captured Shchurove with Lyman in the spring. Residents recently evacuated from the town say that Russian soldiers have mostly abandoned them: they come to check documents but rarely give humanitarian aid.

“In the last three days, after our guys arrived, hell was completely broken,” Lena, a middle-aged woman, said of the Ukrainians’ move. It had just been evacuated by a sluggish Ukrainian amphibious transport vehicle, its dark blue hull still wet as it passed Siversky Donets. Lena added. “Horrible echo, from nowhere. Who, what, where – nothing is clear. ”

In Bakhmut, Russia is recreating Ukraine’s two-pronged strategy of attack. The Ukrainian army entrenched around the city is being worn out and attacked from the east and south. They took on a steady stream of casualties and vehicle losses. At least one village near the outskirts of Bakhmut was captured by Russian forces earlier this month.

“The main problem now is that we need to keep Bakhmut, mostly in Donbas,” said Lieutenant Colonel Yurii Bereza, a battalion commander with the National Guard of Ukraine. .

Moscow’s forces gradually gained territory in the Donbas over the summer, capturing the sister cities of Lysychansk and Sieverodoentsk. But after their recent offensive, the Ukrainian army recaptured several small villages on the western periphery of the region.

Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a defense research institute in Arlington, Va., said Russian troops in Ukraine are “oversupplied”.

Evidence of Russia’s shortfall comes as the Kremlin mobilizes hundreds of thousands of men, some of whom are likely to be deployed to the front in the coming weeks and months. Although their training may be questionable and their effectiveness limited, these new Russian soldiers will still be an obstacle to smaller and less equipped Ukrainian forces.

What we consider before using anonymous sources. Do the sources know the information? What is their motivation to tell us? Have they proven reliable in the past? Can we verify the information? Even if these questions are satisfied, The Times still uses anonymous sources as a last resort. Reporters and at least one editor know the source’s identity.

Currently, the areas around Lyman and Bakhmut are being deployed with Russian reinforcements.

“The point is, there were one or two of them per square meter before,” Colonel Bereza said, referring to the number of Russian troops on the front lines before they retreated in a chaotic manner. chaos from the northeast. “And now it’s 10, due to the tightening of the front.”

The Donbas, an area roughly the size of New Hampshire, is made up of rolling stockpiles, postage stamp-sized mining towns, and plateaus containing slag dumps from the region’s constellation of coal mines. In 2014, Russian-backed separatists established two breakaway republics there, resisting the Ukrainian government for eight years until the Russians launched their invasion in February.

The topography of the area – fields, trees, and rivers – prompted both sides to use whatever tactics they could to corner enemy troops into choke points. For months, the River Siversky Donets defined parts of the Donbas front line as neither side had been able to attack safely via the waterway until recently.

Around Bakhmut, a city with a population of about 70,000 before the war, Russian forces were unhindered by waterways, although Bakhmut was bisected by a North-South river that became increasingly important to the every step of Russia.

Unlike in Lyman, where there was a mix of Russian reserves, separatists, and regular troops, the area around Bakhmut was largely directed by the Wagner Group, a notorious paramilitary force. report to the controlling Kremlin.

Ukrainian soldiers near the front say Wagner’s ranks are supported by prisoners from breakaway regions who have enlisted. A Ukrainian soldier, who did not want to be named for security reasons, said Wagner’s forces had only attacked so far before sending prisoners with no support forward to face Ukrainian guns as “supporters”. bullet”.

These tactics have resulted in Ukrainian forces in the area having a large prisoner population due to the frequent surrender of prisoners. Another soldier, also unnamed, said Russian forces would not exchange captured Ukrainian forces for prisoners: one-time Russian prisoners, now Ukrainian prisoners, are considered defectors. .

However, Russian forces were gradually encroaching on Bakhmut. Machine gunfire on its outskirts was constant – a stark change from the artillery exchanges that defined the war in the Donbas.

These battles went back and forth for weeks: Russian forces attacked and attacked. The Ukrainian army lost vehicles, people and several hundred meters of territory. Ukrainian soldiers then tried to regain the territory by organizing counterattacks.

“We are killing a lot and a lot of them but they keep coming,” said another Ukrainian soldier.

Ukrainian commanders in Bakhmut recently said that even the presence of US-supplied missile systems, known as HIMARS, would not create many cracks in the Russian supply chain. It was a stark change from the Ukrainian commanders’ account of the summer when the weapons were first delivered – suggesting that Russia has adapted to the attacks by better dispersing its stockpile. store your ammunition.

Caught in the crossfire are civilians desperate for the fighting to stop.

Several Ukrainian cities under Russian attack move through stages as they come under attack. First the city suburbs were bombarded, then the city centers – sporadically at first but with increasing volume as the days and weeks dragged on. Emergency responders and public services survive as long as possible before their equipment is destroyed or their personnel flee or die.

Loss of a city’s electricity, water, heat, and cell phone service often heralds the beginning of complete isolation.

Bakhmut and its citizens tried to resist entering that final stage. Overgrown grassy parks, garbage dumps and what looked like a burned-out ambulance lay outside the city hospital. Earlier this month, Bakhmut lost power, water and mobile service, but in recent days it has been restored in some parts of the city.

Andriy, a shop owner in the city center, said the fighting was “getting worse and worse. “The bridge was blown up, the shelling continued.”

“But,” said a tall man in his 40s, eyes sparkling and happy about the hot dog he had just bought from Andriy, “Yesterday I had perfect cell service.”

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