Russia’s capture of the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, a major victory for Moscow’s campaign to conquer eastern Ukraine, demonstrates the success of the Russian military’s grinding strategy based on superior firepower and incremental advances.
It also raises serious questions about how long both sides can hold out in this way, especially the battered and vastly underprivileged Ukrainian forces, forced to rely on raw recruits and suffer heavy casualties, along with the mental strain of fighting, withdrawal and constant Russian shelling.
The Russian invasion has also taken a brutal toll on its own forces, but they continue their slow advance, and with the capture of Lysychansk this weekend they have taken control of the entire Luhansk province, putting them in position to push through. to Ukrainian-held towns in Donetsk province.
The devastating strategy, which relies heavily on long-range artillery, suits the flat terrain and shorter Russian supply lines to the east, but may not work elsewhere. And it remains unclear how much President Vladimir V. Putin plans to push through the offensive, or how much more loss in men and equipment his army can absorb without taking a long break to rebuild.
Ukrainian officials say their aim is to hurt the Russians as much as possible by forcing them to fight for cities, as happened in Sievierodonetsk and to a lesser extent in Lysychansk, but both cities fell, and now there are growing doubts about that approach . The strategy is also divisive among Ukrainian forces, some of whom believe attempts to save cities are futile.
“To me, human life is more important than the name Lysychansk,” said Lt. Col. Yurii Bereza, 52, a battalion commander in Ukraine’s National Guard, days before the Ukrainians decided to leave the city instead of fighting block by bloody bloc. . as they had in neighboring Sievierodonetsk.
Volodymyr, a volunteer soldier who was one of the last members of his unit to withdraw from Sievierodonetsk in June, said he had lost more than half of his company of about 100 soldiers during the battle. He summed up the struggle with an expletive.
“What support?” he asked. “There was no support.”
However, he nodded to the Ukrainian T-80 tank across the street and said tank units came to the aid of the soldiers while artillery support did not.
Early in the war, Russian troops tried to quickly take Kiev, the capital, overstretched their troops and armored columns, giving them little support, and suffered a painful defeat at the hands of the Ukrainians. Moscow then shifted its focus to the mineral-rich, industrial Donbas region to the east – Luhansk and Donetsk – and changed its strategy.
Understanding the war between Russia and Ukraine better
Now Russian troops rarely advance without overwhelming support, often in the form of heavy artillery bombardments – even if that means what Moscow takes in is in ruins. Ukrainian soldiers say the shelling will last about five days before Russian troops begin testing Ukrainian lines with foot soldiers and tanks.
The fighting has clearly exhausted both sides. Ukrainian officials estimate that their armed forces suffer hundreds of casualties a day; Western intelligence services place Russian dead and wounded on a similar level.
Ukrainian troops increasingly rely on less trained forces, such as those from the Territorial Forces and the National Guard, to replenish depleted units on the front lines. And Russia has turned to reinforcements such as Wagner’s paramilitary units, pro-Moscow Chechen troops and separatist fighters from Luhansk and Donetsk to bolster their casualty-plagued units.
On Monday, Mr Putin ordered that the troops involved in the capture of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk rest and “increase their combat capabilities”, while other Russian formations continue fighting.
Both sides have downplayed reports of shaky morale in their ranks and have sometimes posted motivational videos on social media to counter the idea that everyone in the trenches is exhausted. And even as casualties decline, Ukrainian troops are showing a willingness to continue fighting regardless of the cost.
“We’re going back,” Volodymyr said, after withdrawing from Sievierodonetsk. “This is our country. This is how it is.”
But this way of fighting – an artillery war – can cause intense psychological trauma, just like in World War I, the conflict that gave rise to the term ‘shell shock’. Ukrainian commanders, especially of replacement units, are concerned that some of their soldiers are suffering from stress, on top of the risk of being injured or killed by enemy fire.
“During the artillery shelling, all you can do is lie in the bomb shelter and wait for the shelling to be over,” said Volodymyr, a Ukrainian platoon commander who recently came from the front in the Donbas. “Some people are mentally damaged by such shelling. They appear to be psychologically unprepared for whatever they encounter.”
Volodymyr, who refused to give his last name for security reasons, said one person in his platoon had been killed and two had to leave the front due to mental trauma.
More than four months into the war, Ukrainians remain angry and rebellious. But among the citizens – millions of them displaced, unemployed and living in fear, some without sufficient food, water and electricity – the mood is growing darker. As the Russians gain ground and losses mount with no end in sight, some Ukrainians are accusing their government of minimizing the challenges ahead in an effort to raise morale.
Yulia Fedotovskyh, 32, a public relations manager in Kiev, said scrolling through social media images of dead Russian soldiers helped her feel safer earlier in the war. Now, she says, she’s just trying to avoid the news.
“I realize and have accepted that I could die at any moment, so I just live my life,” she said.
In recent days, as an early sign of the violence likely to come, Russian troops have stepped up their shelling of population centers near the front lines.
At least six people were killed in Sloviansk on Sunday and more than a dozen were injured by Russian missiles, Ukrainian authorities said. In a Facebook post, Sloviansk mayor Vadym Lyakh said it was the city’s heaviest shelling since the Russian invasion began on February 24. The head of the regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said in a Telegram message on Monday. messaging app that Russian troops had killed nine civilians in Donetsk province in the past 24 hours.
In his overnight video address, President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that the Russians “have now gathered their greatest firepower in Donbas and could use tens of thousands of artillery shells every day on part of the front.”
But he swore once again to retake the lost territory. “We will return,” he said, “thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons.”
In the south, near the Russian-controlled port city of Kherson, Ukrainian forces have made a series of small gains in the past month. And while military analysts say these mounting victories are a sign of an impending counteroffensive, Ukrainian military officers have downplayed the fighting and acknowledged that the focus is on the east.
Kiev has often called for more weapons and ammunition supplied by the West. And while some have made it to the front and proved successful in combat, most notably the recently-arrived HIMARS multiple-missile launch system from the United States, Ukraine’s longer-term success on the battlefield would take much more.
“There’s a problem with ammunition,” Colonel Bereza said. “For example, for our one shot, they would fire 50 shots. How can you combat this?”
But he said the situation improved somewhat, and that “we are waiting for the help of the West with artillery, with machines.”
Ammunition shortages in the Ukrainian military, especially for the Soviet-era long-range artillery pieces, have caused troops to switch between those weapons and newer, West-supplied equipment that requires extensive training. The United States and its allies provide that training outside of Ukraine, but the pace has fallen short of demand, and some of those trained have been killed or injured.
A Ukrainian officer working with US-supplied M777 howitzers said several officers and howitzer gunners trained in Latvia had been killed or injured in the fighting.
“The enemy’s artillery was working 24 hours a day, and our artillery could do something three or four times a day,” said Olena, a military medic who refused to give her last name for security reasons. “And then it can miss its target. There were problems putting out the fire.”
For both sides, air support was usually a secondary part of the fighting in Donbas, or even absent. Russia and Ukraine both have significant air defenses in the east, meaning most fighter jets and helicopters have to fly dangerously low to provide some support for the ground forces. That has led Russian forces to fire cruise missiles to target key infrastructure behind the front lines.
According to the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, more than a dozen air missions have been conducted in southern and eastern Ukraine in recent days, destroying some of Russian equipment. Last week, a Ukrainian Su-24 ground attack plane was seen flying on treetops towards Lysychansk, a rarity in the Donbas.
Reporting contributed by: Richard Perez-Penac and Alexandra E. Petri from New York; Valerie Hopkins† Maria Varenikova and Kamila Hrabchuk from Kyiv; Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London and Natalia Yermak from Lviv, Ukraine.