KYIV, Ukraine – Despite heavy casualties during nearly six months of war, Russia still has a clear advantage over Ukraine in a head-to-head battle with brutal artillery fighting. But the Ukrainian military has achieved some new successes on the battlefield by waging the war on its own terms.
Supplied with a growing arsenal of western long-range weapons and aided by local fighters called partisans, Ukraine has managed to get Russian forces deep behind enemy lines, disrupt critical supply lines and, increasingly, attack targets vital to Moscow’s combat potential.
A blow to the Russians this week was a series of explosions at an air base in the occupied Crimean peninsula that destroyed at least eight warplanes, a Ukrainian official said was the result of an attack carried out by special forces aided by local forces. partisans. .
The new approach is particularly well suited to the Kherson region of the south, where Ukrainian officials spend weeks opening salvos of a counteroffensive. In particular, the city of Kherson, which relies on just four bridges over the Dnipro River for supplies, is considered more vulnerable than other occupied cities.
On Saturday, the Ukrainians claimed they had hit the last of those four major bridges, putting thousands of Russian troops in danger of being isolated and cut off from supplies, Western intelligence officials said.
“We don’t have the resources to litter the area with corpses and grenades like Russia has,” Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikov said in an interview with Pravda, a Ukrainian news media outlet, last week. “That’s why it’s necessary to change tactics, to fight in a different way.”
The strategy appears to be yielding some results. While the Ukrainian military has not made major territorial gains, it has managed to slow down the Russian advance across the country, at least for the time being, and wipe out the heavy losses Ukraine has suffered in recent months, which had led to shaky morale and some soldiers even abandoned their platoons.
But the Russians have continued to put pressure on Ukraine’s frontline positions in the east and south, some of which are slowly collapsing. The mounting progress has shown that, despite the setbacks of Ukraine’s attacks, the Russian military effort still has sufficient troops to continue the offensive operations.
Ukraine’s efforts in the south represent less of a change in approach than an extension, using new longer-range weapons, of a strategy adopted at the outset of the war designed to level the playing field with Russia. With the Russian army far exceeding Ukraine’s armed forces in troops, weapons and ammunition, the Ukrainian army had to be innovative and agile.
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“Obviously, the Ukrainians cannot match the Russian unit for unit and soldier for soldier. And Ukraine, like the Russians, is running out of soldiers,” said Samuel Bendett, a Russian weapons analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis. “So Ukraine has to be very judicial in how they get the Russian troops out.”
Ukraine successfully repulsed Russian attempts to capture the capital Kiev, using smaller, adaptable combat units that exploited its homefield advantage for lightning strikes on Russian forces concentrated in large unwieldy columns that made easy targets.
In the east, with its broad, flat plains, Russia was able to initially take advantage of its superiority in numbers and firepower, beating Ukrainian forces with relentless artillery barrages before taking the country.
But now that Ukraine has been equipped with new longer-range artillery pieces, such as the American-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System or HIMARS, it has succeeded in slowing Russia’s advance and drawing attention to what Ukraine’s generals see as more favorable territory. consider the south.
There, Ukraine hopes to turn the tide of the war. Using HIMARS and other long-range weapons, Ukrainian forces are slowly but surely gaining the Russian ability to resupply troops occupying territory west of the Dnipro River, including the city of Kherson, which Russian forces have held since the early weeks of the war. , nullified.
Serhii Khlan, an adviser to the head of the military administration of the Kherson region, said on Facebook that Saturday’s destruction of the last remaining bridge over the Dnipro River was part of Ukraine’s strategy to frustrate Russian forces.
“Of course they will try to fix it, find an alternative in the intersections,” he said. “But it’s time, money, and once they prepare and get gear and power, we’ll destroy it again.”
The idea, according to Ukrainian commanders, is to make conditions so untenable that Russia withdraws across the Dnipro under its own power in the face of the expected Ukrainian counter-attack.
“Our soldiers are inventive and progressive, while the Russians are working by the book and deploying combat formations like those deployed in the Soviet Union,” Vitaliy Kim, the head of the military administration of the Mykolaiv region, said in an interview last week. “Our boys have read this book and understand it very well, and use it for their own purposes.”
In eastern Ukraine, the main Russian efforts are now focused on trying to gain ground in the Donetsk region, and heavy fighting has taken place in the area around the town of Pisky in recent days. Russia’s defense ministry said on Saturday that the city had fallen, a claim that could not be independently verified.
The Ukrainian way, as is becoming clearer by the day, is to launch attacks that undermine Moscow’s ability to support the troops it has deployed to the front.
“We look for the Russians’ weaknesses, determine the enemy’s critical points and gradually bleed them out,” said Andrii Ryzhenk, a former top Ukrainian official who is now an adviser at the Center for Defense Strategies, a Ukrainian think tank. month.
While the approach was supported by Western long-range weapons, it was also encouraged by Western officials. Ukraine’s defense minister, Mr Reznikov, said this week that US and UK defense ministers had both advised him: “The Russians are using meat grinder tactics – if you intend to fight them with the same tactics, we will not can help.”
Crucial to Russia’s efforts to hold onto land in southern Ukraine is Moscow’s control of Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. Before the large-scale invasion of Ukraine early this year, Moscow sent tens of thousands of soldiers to the peninsula and captured them. large parts of the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhya within days.
Since then, railway lines from Crimea have been crucial in enabling Moscow to transport heavy weapons and equipment to southern Ukraine. Last week, Britain’s Defense Intelligence Agency said the Ukrainians had hit a major railway line from the peninsula, making it “highly unlikely that the rail link between Kherson and Crimea will remain operational”.
The Russians will likely race to fix it, the agency said, but the attack highlighted a critical vulnerability.
The Southern Theater is now essentially cut in two – divided by the Dnipro River – and British intelligence said that even if Russia were to manage to make significant repairs to the bridges hit by Ukrainian forces, the structures could pose a potential weakness. would stay in place.
Marc Santora reported from Kiev, Ukraine, Michael Schwirtz from Odessa, Ukraine, and Jack Nicas from Rio de Janeiro. Thomas Gibbons-Neff reporting contributed.