Eastern Ukraine is preparing for a new Russian offensive
NEVSKE, Ukraine – In a small village in eastern Ukraine, at the epicenter of the next phase of the war, Lyudmila Degtyaryova gauges the Russian advance by listening to the roar of artillery shells.
There are more and more now. And they come more frequently as the Russian troops advance.
“You should see the fireworks here,” said Ms Degtyaryova, 61, as the sounds of artillery blared all around. “It’s like the New Year.”
The Russian military is preparing to launch a new offensive that could soon swallow Ms Degtyaryova’s village of Nevske, and possibly much more in the region of eastern Ukraine known as Donbass. But already the impact of Russia’s intensified assault is being felt in towns and villages along hundreds of miles of the rolling eastern front.
The exhausted Ukrainian troops complain that they are already outnumbered and outgunned, even before Russia has committed the bulk of its roughly 200,000 newly mobilized troops. And doctors at hospitals are talking of mounting casualties as they struggle to treat fighters with horrific injuries.
Civilians standing in the way of Russia’s planned advance are once again faced with the agonizing decision of whether to leave or stay and wait for the calamity to come. This area of northern Donbass was one of the last to be liberated in a Ukrainian blitzkrieg last fall that raised hopes among local residents that their months of trauma were over.
But the war has returned. Two weeks ago a Russian shell landed in Ms Degtyaryova’s yard, and as she contemplated her future over the weekend, the remains of her barn were still smoking.
She has rabbits, ducks and three pregnant cows to look after. A chicken, its feathers partially scorched in the recent strike, lay recovering in a bed of hay, its small injured foot in a homemade cast.
The state of war
- On the ground: Amid what Ukrainian officials say is the start of a new Russian offensive, troops in Kyiv are coming under increasing pressure on the eastern front, with particularly fierce fighting around the town of Bakhmut.
- Change of direction : President Volodymyr Zelensky’s political party will replace Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov. The expected decision comes amid a spreading corruption scandal, although Mr Reznikov has not been implicated in any wrongdoing.
- EU visit to Kyiv: European Union leaders met with Mr. Zelensky and pledged to continue supporting his country. But they have retained a price that the Ukrainian president wants so much: accelerated accession to the EU.
- Nuclear fears fade: American policymakers and intelligence analysts are less worried about Russia’s use of nuclear weapons during the war. But the threat could reappear, they say.
If the Russians come back, she laments, she will have to flee.
“I started packing my stuff, if I’m being honest,” she said. “The soldiers will cover my back and I will leave. I will let my cows out and I will go. I don’t want to go back there. »
It remains unclear when and where the new offensive will begin in earnest, but Ukrainian officials are gravely concerned. The Ukrainian military defied dire pre-war assessments, thwarting early Russian efforts to seize the capital, Kyiv, and eventually pushing back Russian forces in the northeast and south.
But the Russian army continues to arrive. At this time, the newly mobilized troops are completing their training and entering the field; the forces include as many soldiers as those who took part in the initial invasion last year.
They could be ready to fight in just two weeks, said Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, which includes Nevske – much sooner than new Western weapons, including tanks and heavy armored fighting vehicles. , should only arrive in Ukraine.
“There are so many,” Haidai said of the new recruits. “They are not professional soldiers, but still 200,000 people are shooting in our direction.”
Russia is expected to hit hard, seeking to reverse nearly a year of cascading failure. While a new attack on Kyiv is now considered unlikely, Russian forces will likely try to recover the territories they lost last fall. as well as taking full control of Donbass, a key objective of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
Military analysts say a likely scenario would be for Russian forces to descend from the north and ascend from the south in an arc, creating a large claw that would cut through Ukrainian supply lines running east to west. This would put villages like Nevske in the direct path of likely Russian advance.
For the locals, it would be a disaster. Here, at the forefront of the Ukrainian offensive, the people did not experience the fruits of liberation like the Ukrainians further west. There is still no electricity or water and the fighting has never stopped. Fields of unharvested black sunflowers are riddled with snow-filled craters, and the area is littered with burnt tanks, unexploded ordnance and mines that frequently kill livestock. Passing through the region, we sometimes come across their frozen bodies or bones.
At Makiivka, just north of Nevske, five of Ruslan Vasilchenko’s cows were killed, and the remaining ones were recently piled up in a small barn that had been covered in shrapnel. There was a burnt tank in his garden and two wrecked cars in his yard. He said he expected things to get worse soon.
“In recent days, the soldiers have come to tell us not to leave our homes,” he said.
The first stages of the Russian offensive have already begun. Ukrainian troops say Bakhmut, a town in eastern Ukraine that Russian forces have been trying to capture since the summer, is likely to fall soon. Elsewhere, Russian forces are advancing in small groups and probing the front lines for Ukrainian weaknesses.
The efforts are already straining the Ukrainian military, which is exhausted from nearly 12 months of heavy fighting.
Troops say they have tanks and artillery, but not enough either, and have much less ammunition than their opponents. Russian forces have also begun to deploy more sophisticated weapons, such as the T-90 tank, which is equipped with technology capable of detecting anti-tank weapon targeting systems like American-made Javelins, limiting their effectiveness.
Most of the time, however, the challenge comes down to numbers.
“It’s especially tough when you have 50 guys and they have 300,” said a 35-year-old infantryman named Pavlo, who was hit in the eye by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade near Bakhmut. “You take them out and they keep coming and coming. There are so many.”
Casualties among the Ukrainian forces were severe. Troops from a volunteer contingent called the Carpathian Sich, positioned near Nevske, said some 30 fighters from their group had died in recent weeks, and the soldiers said, only partly jokingly, that almost all of the everyone had a concussion.
“It’s winter and the posts are open; there is nowhere to hide,” said a soldier in the unit with the call sign Rusin.
At a frontline hospital in Donbass, the morgue was filled with the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers in white plastic bags. At another hospital, stretchers with wounded soldiers covered in gold foil thermal blankets cluttered the hallways, and a steady stream of ambulances arrived from the front most of the day.
A military surgeon at this hospital, Myroslav Dubenko, 36, scrolled through photographs of soldiers with appalling injuries: a torn lower jaw, half a face missing. A soldier was rushed in with his throat cut from ear to ear. Dr. Dubenko was able to quickly repair the damage and the soldier survived.
“In civilian life, you know that no matter how horrible your shift is, it will end sooner or later,” Dr. Dubenko said. “Here, you never know when it’s going to end.”
It’s not just the influx of soldiers that is keeping doctors busy; civilians, too, are frequent victims of Russian attacks. For Andriy Drobnytsky, a 27-year-old military doctor, this is part of a deliberate strategy to crush Ukrainian military hospitals. Last week, a retired prison guard was rushed to the military hospital where Dr Drobnytsky is deployed, his hand shattered by a mortar shell that exploded while he was collecting firewood. Dr. Drobnytsky helped stitch up his hand, likely sparing his index finger.
“If there are a lot of victims, we will be distracted by them,” he said. “You just can’t give them up, can you?”
Whether Russia will be able to capitalize on its numerical strength is an open question. Russian soldiers, according to Ukrainian and Western estimates, are dying in far greater numbers. US officials now estimate that the number of Russian soldiers wounded and killed is approaching 200,000, a staggering casualty rate.
In his sleeping quarters at a base near Bakhmut, a soldier with the call sign Badger pulled out a cloth bag and emptied its contents onto a cot. Inside were half a dozen knives – including one with a stag’s hoof handle – trophies he said he had taken from the bodies of dead Russian soldiers.
“We also have losses, but they have huge losses,” Badger said. “We wasted them all in large numbers.”
Back near Nevske, Carpathian Sich soldiers said they had enough ammunition to hang on for now. A soldier, with the call sign Diesel, showed videos on his phone of the bodies of Russian soldiers he had killed when they got too close.
As they have done since the start of the war, the Russians continue to make stupid mistakes, he said. From a dead officer, Diesel said, he took a tablet with no passcode containing the coordinates of all their mines and snipers.
In a video he recorded from the front, Diesel approaches a body lying in the snow, the barrel of his rifle pointed at the Russian’s head.
“Hello,” he whispers after determining the man is dead. “Did you sleep well?”