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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Five places Russia is fighting to break through Ukrainian lines

Ukrainian soldiers from the 71st Jaeger Brigade in the area of Avdiivka, Ukraine, on Feb. 14, 2024. Ukraine ordered the complete withdrawal from the decimated city of Avdiivka before dawn on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, surrendering a position that had been a military stronghold for the better part of a decade, in the face of withering Russian assault. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

By Marc Santora, Scott Reinhard and Josh Holder

Ukraine is engaged in a desperate fight to hold back the Russian onslaught.

Russian forces captured the longtime Ukrainian stronghold of Avdiivka before dawn on Saturday, Moscow’s first major battlefield gain since it took Bakhmut last May.

But across the entire 600-mile long front, Ukraine is short on ammunition without renewed U.S. military assistance, and it is struggling to replenish its own depleted forces after two years of brutal fighting.

Russia’s assault has split into five major lines of attack, spanning towns and cities across much of the front in eastern and southern Ukraine. Here is the status of Russia’s offensive in five crucial battles:

1. Avdiivka: Russia captured a longtime Ukrainian stronghold.

The now-destroyed city of Avdiivka covers only some 12 square miles. But for the better part of a decade it carved a bulge in the front line that undermined crucial Russian logistical operations. It sits only a few miles from the city of Donetsk, which Russia has occupied since 2014.

In recent weeks, Russian forces have breached a crucial supply line and threatened to encircle Ukrainian soldiers. Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, head of Ukraine’s forces in the south, said Ukraine had no choice but to withdraw.

“In a situation where the enemy is advancing on the corpses of their own soldiers with a 10-to-1 shell advantage, under constant bombardment, this is the only correct solution,” he said in a statement.

It’s not clear how far the Russians might be able to push this fight beyond Avdiivka, or how well Ukrainians have constructed their next lines of defense. But the next major population centers, home to tens of thousands of civilians, are only about 35 miles to the west.

Roughly 50,000 Russian soldiers have been dedicated to the fight for Avdiivka in this direction, although the numbers fluctuated. Tens of thousands of Russians have been killed or wounded, according to Western and Ukrainian officials, but Russia has steadily replenished their ranks, including using convicts to join the fighting.

Even if the lines stabilize after the Russians take the city, its fall allows the Russian military to move troops and equipment more efficiently behind the line as it presses in other directions.

2. Marinka: A destroyed town is now a base for Russian attacks.

By last month, Russian forces had finally cleared out the last Ukrainian defenders of Marinka, another longtime front-line town.

There is very little left of Marinka after two years of Russian bombardments and battles. But its capture has allowed the Russians to turn their attention to the south and another vital Ukrainian stronghold, Vuhledar.

Last year, the Russians repeatedly tried to attack Vuhledar from the south and suffered catastrophic losses, including a devastating defeat in one of the largest tank battles of the war.

But with Marinka under control, the Russians are attacking Vuhledar from the north. They are currently advancing through the village of Novomykhailivka, which is about 13 miles to the northeast.

It is not clear how many forces the Russians have amassed in this direction, but Ukrainian officials have said Russia has kept around 40,000 in the nearby Mariupol area to be deployed for attacks from the south.

Soldiers fighting in the Vuhledar area said the fall of Avdiivka, 55 miles to the northeast, would likely free up Russian forces to step up attacks from the north.

3. Robotyne: Russia is seeking to reverse Ukraine’s largest gains last year.

When Ukraine’s failed summer counteroffensive culminated last year, its forces had managed to advance only about 10 miles deep into the southern front, reaching just beyond a tiny village, Robotyne.

Russia now appears determined to win back what it lost.

The Russian military has more troops concentrated on this front than on the Avdiivka front, Dmytro Lykhovii, a spokesperson for Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the south, said this past week.

“It seems that the Russians have set a goal to gain some success there by storming in, just as they are trying to do in Avdiivka,” he said.

4. Kreminna: Russia is pushing from Kreminna to reclaim towns in the northeast it lost to Ukraine in late 2022.

Ever since the Russians were driven out of occupied territories in northeastern Ukraine more than a year ago — losing control over more than 500 settlements spread over 11,000 square kilometers — they have been fighting to try and take it back.

Last year, little territory changed hands, despite intense fighting in the forest belts along the front here. Now, Russia is starting to move forward again, albeit slowly in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance.

Russian forces are pushing in two directions from the city of Kreminna: toward the battered city of Kupiansk to the north, and toward Lyman, 80 miles to the south. Russia has maintained a total force of around 110,000 troops in the area for months, despite losses, Illia Yevlash, a spokesperson for the military in the area, told reporters this month.

5. Bakhmut: Russia has regained the momentum, and a major Ukrainian city could come into artillery range.

Russia destroyed and then seized the city of Bakhmut in May, its last significant territorial gain on the battlefield before advancing on Avdiivka this past week. By the time the Russians took Bakhmut, their forces were exhausted, and the Wagner mercenary group that led the fight was in open rebellion against the Russian ministry of defense.

Ukrainian hopes to exploit the disarray to counterattack around the flanks of the city largely stalled. Now, it is the Russians who have the initiative.

Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, the newly appointed commander of Ukrainian forces, said recently that the Russians are determined to break through their defenses around Chasiv Yar, which would give them control of commanding heights in the area and expose the city of Kramatorsk to increased artillery fire. Some 62,000 Russian soldiers are on the ground in the Bakhmut direction, according to Ukrainian estimates.

“The situation is tense, requiring constant monitoring of the overall situation and prompt decision-making on the ground,” Syrsky said in a statement this month.

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