The Fight to Survive Russia’s Onslaught in Eastern Ukraine

Russia’s war in Ukraine is not the same conflict that it was earlier this spring. The Russian Army’s initial campaign, in February and March, was a three-front invasion with little coherence or military logic. Ukrainian troops mounted small-unit ambushes and used rocket-propelled grenades, antitank weapons, and drones to destroy Russian troop formations and armor. Viral videos show their direct strikes, with tanks disappearing in flame and smoke. Now the Russian military has regrouped its forces for a more targeted assault in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, drawing on its advantages in artillery and airpower. As Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at CNA, a defense research organization, said, “Russia is making fitful but incremental gains, and Ukraine’s position in the Donbas is more precarious than it once seemed.” I spent several days in the Donbas recently, where a number of officers and enlisted soldiers told me that Ukrainian infantry rarely see the enemy. Rather, battles are often fought at distances of ten miles or more. The war has become, as one soldier told me, a game of “artillery Ping-Pong.”

In Bakhmut, a midsize town a few miles from the front, I met members of a Kyiv-based unit of the Territorial Defense, a voluntary military corps, who had been sent east in recent weeks; they looked ragged but cheerful. Since Russian forces had captured the nearby town of Popasna, in May, Bakhmut fell well within Russian artillery range; it was also on Ukraine’s main supply route to Sievierodonetsk, the city that is now Russia’s main target and the site of running street battles. One of the soldiers switched to English to describe the fighting: “Let me put it like this: very fucking awful.” He went on, “We want to shoot the enemy, but we don’t see him. An infantryman has nothing to do in an artillery war other than dig—and run.”

On the road out of Bakhmut, I stopped at a military checkpoint to say hello to Volodymyr Yelets, a fifty-year-old volunteer fighter with a deep baritone and a thick silver beard. Before the war, Yelets was a human-rights activist. I had first met him on February 23rd, the day before Russia’s invasion, in his home town of Toretsk, fifteen miles away. Once the war started, Yelets joined the Territorial Defense forces, and was dispatched here, where he and other troops were digging new trenches in case of a further Russian advance. “You could say that nothing changed for me,” he said. “Only now I’m defending people’s freedoms with a rifle.” We walked to a hilltop, which gave us a wide view of the horizon. A Ukrainian military drone buzzed overhead. “We took this position so we could see everything,” Yelets told me. Smoke billowed at several points along the rolling landscape, as heavy battles unfolded in Bakhmut and Lyman, another nearby city. “Popasna got it hard,” Yelets said, with rockets, missiles, artillery shells. He had stood in the same spot, watching as the sky lit up with a fiery rain. Lately, he had heard what he thought was a new artillery system in the field—it sounded “like the wild roar of a dinosaur,” he said.

The next day, I drove down the highway to another city in the Donbas—the military command requested its precise location not be identified for security reasons—where I met Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavsky, the deputy commander of Ukrainian forces on the eastern front. Tarnavsky described the shift in Russia’s tactics. “If before they simply marched in large columns, now they have started to actually fight,” he said. The Russian Army has split its forces into smaller groups, which it uses, along with a sizable fleet of drones, to identify and target Ukrainian positions, hitting them with artillery and air strikes. When a particular zone or village has effectively been levelled, ground troops—a mixture of regular Russian soldiers, Wagner mercenaries, and fighters mobilized from the Russia-backed separatist territories in Donetsk and Luhansk, Tarnavsky said—move in to try to seize the rubble.

In some fighting zones in the Donbas, Russian commanders have sent in fresh troops every day to replace those on the front. “One soldier advances two metres, and then another comes to push farther,” Tarnavsky said. In areas where battles have been the most intense, Russia has had, by his count, a five-to-one manpower advantage. Tarnavsky also estimated that Russia has an advantage of up to seven-to-one in artillery batteries and a similarly large stockpile of munitions. As a result, Russian forces can rely on wave after wave of indiscriminate fire from large-calibre artillery, along with missile and air strikes, to soften Ukraine’s defenses, inflicting large casualties before they advance.

I heard multiple stories of Russia’s disproportionate reliance on heavy weaponry. A ten-member Ukrainian reconnaissance unit was spotted during a mission and then fired upon by three Tochka-U ballistic missiles, a munition hefty enough to take out a bridge or an entire command post. Tarnavsky told me of individual Ukrainian artillery systems targeted by Iskander missiles, which cost an estimated five million dollars a shot. “That’s a very expensive pleasure,” he said. “You have to be very rich, or very desperate.”

The toll on Ukrainian forces in recent weeks has been immense. The country’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, has said that as many as a hundred soldiers are killed each day, and five hundred wounded. On a highway in the Donbas, I passed a convoy of trucks with signs that read “Cargo-200” on their windshields, military parlance for soldiers killed in action. Still, Ukraine’s military doesn’t lack soldiers; mass mobilization efforts and an influx of volunteers have doubled the ranks of the armed forces since February. The more pressing shortfalls, Tarnavskiy told me, are of experience and skill. “A lot of regular military personnel have been killed,” he said. “They are replaced by doctors and mechanics. We have manpower, but much of this core”—those with combat experience who could lead and motivate new recruits—“is either dead or wounded.”

While in the Donbas, I heard from a friend in Kyiv, Nastya Stanko, a well-known journalist, that her friend of many years, Vitaliy Derekh, had been killed in battle nearby. He was thirty-four, a former journalist, and a leading member of a Ukrainian scouting organization, who, after tending to wounded protesters during the 2014 Maidan Revolution, in Kyiv, volunteered to join the fight against Russia-backed proxy militias in the Donbas. He then returned to civilian life, working on a search-and-rescue team. Days after Russia’s invasion, in February, he had reënlisted, joining a newly formed brigade, where he was made commander of an antitank unit.

Another member of the unit, whose call sign is Greek, told me that they had started fighting in the war in the outskirts of Kyiv, where they set out in small reconnaissance teams to identify Russian armored columns. At one point, they recovered a downed Russian drone and sent it to military engineers for further study. In early April, they were dispatched to the Donbas. It was immediately clear that their new front would be different. “The shelling simply never ends, they are firing at you for days on end—it’s exhausting, and starts to eat at you,” Greek said. “It feels as if they are trying to smash into atoms every Ukrainian soldier and every inch of Ukrainian land in the Donbas.”

Greek said the unit’s fighting spirit had stayed high, even as losses mounted. In one battle, near the city of Lyman, a Russian armored personnel carrier stormed a Ukrainian position, firing its large-calibre cannon. Two soldiers were killed, and another seven wounded, before Derekh struck the vehicle with an antitank missile, blowing it up and stopping the assault. Lyman was ultimately captured by Russian forces in late May. “The fire was so thick and constant we couldn’t do anything, neither advance to our positions or even retreat,” another member of Derekh’s unit, whose call sign is Poppy, said. “To move was to risk death.”

Days later, outside of Svitlodarsk, another city facing Russian attack, Derekh spotted a column of three Russian trucks carrying troops. He fired, destroying them, and slowed the siege. After that, Greek said, “They simply went crazy.” Russian aircraft flew four sorties over Derekh’s position, and the artillery fire was unceasing. A guided missile, likely launched by a Russian fighter jet, hit Derekh’s dugout. He was killed instantly. “You can be brave and experienced and know what to do in every situation,” Greek said. “But Fortuna also decides a lot.” According to Greek, counting the dead and wounded, the unit has lost around forty per cent of its combat strength.

Over several days in the Donbas, I visited a number of hospitals to speak with injured soldiers. Over all, their morale and fighting spirit seemed high, but nearly all of them expressed a sense of helplessness in the face of unrelenting shelling. I rode in an ambulance during a medical evacuation with Vladislav, a paratrooper in his mid-twenties, who had been in a battle in a forest near Sievierodonetsk. He and seven other soldiers had been in a shootout with two Russian platoons, and killed at least a dozen Russian fighters. But such close-range battles are rare, Vladislav said. Instead, these days, Russian units tend to pull back at first contact, then let artillery batteries positioned behind them pummel Ukrainian forces at long range.

It was eleven at night when the Russian barrage started. Vladislav was lying in a trench he had dug in the forest floor. Shells from a 152-millimetre artillery gun started to land around him—large-calibre munitions meant to destroy armored vehicles and groupings of infantry. Vladislav described the experience of finding himself under a cloud of fiery metal. “It starts with a loud whistle and you feel something fly past. Then comes the explosion, followed by the blast wave. Last is the shrapnel, which swarms through the air like flies: thpht thpht thpht,” he said, mimicking the sound. “All you want to do is hide, not breathe, dig deeper in the ground.” The earth heaved and branches snapped as shrapnel ripped through the forest. A tree fell and covered Vladislav in his trench. The blast knocked him unconscious. When he came to, he was plagued by nausea and dizziness, which only got worse when he ate his Canadian-supplied M.R.E.s. After two days, he was evacuated to the hospital and treated for a concussion.

Vladislav told me he was eager and ready for battle, but not this kind. “When a person is shooting at you, you have a clear idea of how to fight back, of where to direct your adrenaline,” he said. “But when a piece of metal is flying at you, you don’t know where the enemy is and how to survive. I’m a rifleman, I have no weapon to defend myself from that.”

The culmination of the battle for the Donbas—and thus, Russia’s invasion, writ large—may come down to a race between competing time lines: Can Russia grind down Ukrainian forces and continue its metre-by-metre advance faster than Ukraine can receive substantial numbers of Western artillery systems and munitions? The United States has provided more than a hundred M777 howitzers and, on May 31st, the Biden Administration said it would provide Ukraine with HIMARS, a guided long-range rocket system with a range of about forty-five miles. France supplied Caesar self-propelled howitzers; the United Kingdom sent a number of U.S.-made M270 rocket launchers from its arsenal. But even with all these shipments, Ukraine has far less heavy artillery in the field than does Russia.

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