Amid ‘stalemate’, death comes quickly

As fighting continues to intensify, costly and exhausting battles are yielding little territorial gains

By Marc Santora



Santa Fe New Mexican


DONBAS, Eastern Ukraine — The agony came in waves as the wounded Ukrainian soldier in the back of the ambulance slipped in and out of consciousness. The driver, hurtling past cratered fields on roads thick with mud, was racing to escape Russian artillery fire north of the city of Avdiivka, while hoping he was not spotted by drones. “They are just razing everything to the ground,” said the driver, Seagull, using only his call sign in accordance with military protocol. “I have never seen anything like this.” Russian forces have been staging fierce assaults around Avdiivka for more than a month and have recently launched simultaneous offensives across eastern Ukraine in what military analysts say is a bid to regain the initiative as winter approaches. Ukrainian forces are resisting furiously, while probing for openings in a southern counteroffensive and conducting river crossings near the southern port city of Kherson. When Ukraine’s top military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, said recently that the war had reached a “stalemate” — with intense and exhausting battles yielding little territorial gains — it created an impression in some quarters that the fighting may have stalled. But for the Ukrainian soldiers and medics on the front, the violent struggle to stop relentless Russian onslaughts, while fighting to claw back advantageous positions, does not feel the least bit static. “Of course, it’s getting harder,” said Oleksandr, 52, a medic at the medical stabilization point a few miles from the front. “We understand that it will be longer, harder, and there will be more losses.” Still, he said, there was no choice but to fight so his grandchildren could grow up free from Russian tyranny. “We will stay here as long as necessary,” he said. And so the fighting rages on, with little territory changing hands while a grim tally of casualties grows larger. Ukrainian forces have mostly thwarted Russia’s attacks, using a combination of drones and cluster munitions to inflict some of the heaviest Russian losses of the war, according to soldiers and military analysts. Soldiers in the thick of the fight are keenly aware of how dependent they remain on Western support. “Ukraine itself is unlikely to be able to do anything to turn the situation around; it’s a question of allies,” said Synoptic, a soldier with the 110th Mechanized Brigade, which has been defending Avdiivka since start of the full-scale war last year. “It is necessary for us to have an advantage in everything — then a breakthrough is possible,” he said. “We do not have this advantage. They have more aviation, radio reconnaissance, electronic warfare and more people. But even in such conditions, Ukraine is doing offensive operations in certain areas.” The same factors that have kept Ukrainians from making a major breakthrough — dense minefields, withering artillery fire and the widespread deployment of drones that makes large-scale surprise almost impossible — have helped them repel Russian assaults, Ukrainian soldiers said. “It’s an evolution of warfare,” said Carbonara, another soldier with the 110th. “We start outplaying them, they start outplaying us.” More than a month after Russia began an offensive to encircle and seize Avdiivka, it is closing in on the sprawling industrial plant on the city’s outskirts. Moscow’s willingness to devote thousands of troops to the effort shows its confidence that Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south has mostly culminated and that it has the forces it needs to repel any new Ukrainian threat. But the campaign so far is most notable for the staggering losses its units have suffered. Zaluzhny said in a statement last week that Russia had lost more than 100 tanks, 250 other armored vehicles, about 50 artillery systems and seven Su-25 aircraft since Oct. 10. He also claimed that Russia had suffered some 10,000 casualties. While his accounting is impossible to verify fully, GeoConfirmed, an open-source reporting project, used commercially available satellite imagery to verify that at least 197 Russian vehicles had been damaged or destroyed between Oct. 9 and Nov. 1. “We can conclude now that this is by far the most costly Russian assault during three weeks, for one city, since the beginning of the war,” GeoConfirmed analysts stated. Frederick B. Hodges, a retired lieutenant general and the former top U.S. Army commander in Europe, cautioned that it was misleading to gauge Ukraine’s success simply by the territory its forces had gained. He said he was continually struck by “how linear and land-centric some of the observers” of the war remain. “How telling that after nine years of conflict, two years since Russia’s invasion, with all the advantages the Kremlin has on its side, they can control only around 18% of Ukraine,” he said. But time, like weapons and ammunition, is a strategic commodity, and the Kremlin is clearly hoping it can outlast Ukraine’s Western allies. More than 90% of the approved military funding for Ukraine has been spent, according to the White House, and delays in getting more assistance approved by the U.S. Congress are starting to be felt on the battlefield.