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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How one crack in the line opened a path for the Russians

A member of the 95th Separate Air Assault Brigade passes pyramidal anti-tank obstacles, called “dragon’s teeth,” after an operation in the direction of Kreminna in eastern Ukraine, April 30, 2024. When Russian soldiers suddenly showed up in the small town of Ocheretyne in the east, it was clear that something had gone wrong. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

By Marc Santora

Thunderous explosions shook the ground as the Ukrainian crew prepared to maneuver its American-made Bradley Fighting Vehicle out of camouflage and, once again, into the fire.

The commander of the team, a sergeant with the call sign Lawyer, nervously scanned the sky. “If we are seen, the KABs will come,” he said, referring to the 1-ton bombs Russia has been using to target Ukraine’s most valuable armor and defenses.

What had started as a small Russian thrust into the tiny town of Ocheretyne was growing into a substantial breakthrough, threatening to unhinge the Ukrainian lines across a broad stretch of the eastern front. The crew’s mission was to help contain the breach: protect outmanned and outgunned infantry soldiers, evacuate the wounded and use the Bradley’s powerful 25 mm cannon against as many Russians as possible.

But the 28-ton vehicle was soon spotted. Mortars and rockets exploded all around, and the gunner was badly injured, said the commander, identified only by his call sign according to military protocol.

A combat assignment had turned into a mission to rescue his comrade. The gunner survived and is now recovering, Lawyer said a few days later. But the Russians gained territory and are continuing to try to press forward.

Ukraine is more vulnerable than at any time since the first harrowing weeks of the 2022 invasion, Ukrainian soldiers and commanders from a range of brigades interviewed in recent weeks said. Russia is trying to exploit this window of opportunity, stepping up its assaults across the east and now threatening to open a new front by attacking Ukrainian positions along the northern border outside the city of Kharkiv.

Months of delays in American assistance, a spiraling number of casualties and severe shortages of ammunition have taken a deep toll, evident in the exhausted expressions and weary voices of soldiers engaged in daily combat.

“Frankly speaking, I have fears,” said Lt. Col. Oleksandr Voloshyn, 57, the veteran tank battalion commander of the 59th Motorized Brigade. “Because if I will not have shells, if I will not have men, if I will not have equipment that my men can fight with ...,” he said, trailing off. “That’s it.”

The sudden Russian advance through Ocheretyne, about 9 miles northwest of Avdiivka, in late April, illustrates how even a small crack in the line can have cascading effects, as already-stretched platoons risk being flanked and encircled and other units race in to plug the breach.

“It’s like if you have an engine knock in your car, and you keep driving it,” Lt. Oleksandr Shyrshyn, 29, the deputy battalion commander for the 47th Mechanized Brigade, said. “The car works, but at some point, it will just stop. Then you’ll end up spending even more resources to restore it.”

“Similarly here, there are mistakes that do not seem critical,” he said. “But they’ve led to the need to stabilize the situation now. And it’s uncertain where that stabilization will occur.”

“Every event you did not predict can turn your situation completely upside down,” Shyrshyn said. “And this is what happened in Ocheretyne.”

The ripple effect

After the fall of Avdiivka to Russian forces in February, the small town of Ochertyne served as a Ukrainian military strong point along a highway. Most of the 3,000 residents had fled. Abandoned high-rise apartment blocks and other urban infrastructure provided good defensive positions and for two months, the situation remained relatively stable.

But then something went wrong.

The Russians appeared so suddenly on the battered streets around Ivan Vivsianyk’s home in late April that, at first glance, he mistook them for Ukrainian soldiers. When they asked him for his passport, the 88-year old knew the defense of Ocheretyne had collapsed.

“I thought that our soldiers would come and knock them out,” he said in an interview after making what he called a harrowing walk across the front line to escape. “But it didn’t happen.”

Three weeks later, what started as a small Russian advance has grown into a roughly 15-square-mile bulge that is complicating the defense of the Donetsk region.

Extending the bulge farther north could allow the Russians a chance to bypass some of the strongest Ukrainian fortifications in the east that have held for years. Russia can now also take a new line of attacked aimed at Konstiantynivka, a town that is a logistical linchpin for Ukrainian forces.

The Russians are also paying a staggering price for every step forward. Some 899 Russian soldiers per day were killed or wounded in April, Britain’s military intelligence agency reported recently.

Despite throwing so many soldiers into the fight, the Russians took an area covering only about 30 square miles in April, according to military analysts. And capturing Ukraine’s last fortress cities in the Donbas — urban centers like Kramatorsk and Pokrovsk — would almost certainly involve long and bloody battles.

Still, the Russian advances in recent weeks in the east and northeast are starting to alter the geometry of the front in dangerous ways.

Shyrshyn hoped the situation would improve with the arrival of Western weapons but until then, he said, “we will continue to die, we will continue to lose territories.”

“The question is whether it will be at a slow pace and defensible,” he said. “Or at a fast one and senseless.”

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