KHARKIV, Ukraine – When Russia launched Ukraine in February, its strategy was a rapid advance of tanks and helicopter strikes deep into the country – two strategies that ultimately failed, costing Moscow an untold number of casualties.
Now, with a narrower target primarily focused on eastern Ukraine, Russia said on Tuesday it had embarked on the new military campaign, which Ukrainian and US officials said will be much more methodical.
Instead of lightning strikes from Russia’s front lines, Moscow’s troops – lined up in a semicircle stretching west to east from the city of Izium to Sieverodonetsk – have increased their artillery fire and sent small detachments of troops to investigate the Ukrainian lines. Many of the Ukrainian troops located in this region, known as the Donbas, are anchored in earthworks that have been there for nearly a decade.
Known in military circles as “shaping operations,” these smaller Russian attacks are often the precursors to larger troop movements or serve as a distraction from other fronts. In recent days, the Russians have sent about 11 more tactical battalion groups to the Donbas, bringing the number there to about 75, according to Pentagon officials. Each group has about a thousand troops.
In Horlivka, a town occupied by Russian-backed separatists, a resident said Tuesday that, after a week of silence, heavy artillery fire was now coming from the Russian side, along with troop movements and overflying Russian jets.
Strikes have been sweeping across Ukraine in recent days, signaling a new escalation: in Kharkov, for example, Russian artillery struck a heavily shelled residential area on Tuesday, killing at least three people. The deadly attack follows two days of blistering rocket and artillery strikes on parts of the city rarely hit in the past month.
Other cities such as Zaporizhia, Lviv and Kiev, the capital, were hit by cruise missiles and artillery fire as Russian ground troops prepared to attack the Donbas, an industrial heartland in eastern New Hampshire.
A resident of Kramatorsk — one of the larger towns in the Donbas that is still in Ukrainian hands and likely to be one of Russia’s main targets on the offensive — has spent the past few days watching from a vantage point as the front line moves northwest. of his city erupted in concentrated artillery barrages.
“Russian troops have started the battle for the Donbas that they have been preparing for a long time,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video Monday evening. “A very important part of the Russian army is now concentrated for that offensive.”
The two sides have been embroiled in a battle in the Donbas for the past eight years, with Ukrainian government forces fighting against Russian-backed separatists. The coming battle, in wide open ground, will look significantly different from the urban warfare that took place around Kiev, where the Russian army tried to take the capital but failed.
“Compared to the first few weeks of the war, this next offensive is a lot less decisive than it seems,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “Whatever happens in the Donbas, the costs are likely to be so high that the Russian army will be a spent fighting force.”
As Russian forces scan the Ukrainian front lines and position troops in the northern reaches of Donbas, the battle in the south – around the city of Mariupol – has turned into a full-blown siege, with the encircled Ukrainian defenders barely holding out. † According to Ukrainian officials, thousands of civilians were injured or killed in the months-long fighting.
Svitlana Grebinyk, 46, said she last heard from her son, a Ukrainian marine, there on April 12. He had sent a message to her daughter on Instagram.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
She paraphrased him: “I have no way out. We have no other choice. We will most likely be in captivity.”
“I love you all.”
The capture of Mariupol is an important part of the Russian campaign in eastern Ukraine. The fall of the city would allow Russia to complete a land bridge between Russian territory and occupied Crimea. It would also allow Russian forces to reconstruct and push north to Ukrainian positions around the city of Zaporizhzhya. This could allow them to put additional pressure on Ukrainian forces from the north and south, putting pressure on supply lines and other resources.
Tetiana Plysenko, 61, a resident of Huliaipole, one of the frontline towns north of Mariupol, said little had changed in recent days. The shelling continues unabated, although there was an airstrike near the city on Saturday – a rarity, another resident of the city said.
“Some people,” said Ms. Plysenko, “have recently returned and have maintained their gardens.”
Ukrainian forces have responded in kind to the Russian escalation, firing their own artillery – a mixture of howitzers, mortars and unguided missiles – to disrupt and delay larger attacks.
But despite supplies and renewed pledges from the United States and other NATO countries, Ukrainian officials continue to express deep concerns about their own ammunition stockpile and whether it will be enough to keep advancing Russian forces at bay.
The Ukrainian army “repelled seven enemy attacks, destroyed 10 tanks, 18 armored units and eight vehicles, one artillery system and an enemy mortar,” Ukraine’s defense ministry said in a statement on Tuesday. Those claims could not be independently verified.
Natalia Yermak and Tyler Hicks contributed reporting from Kharkiv.