By Marc Santora
Moscow is dispatching thousands more soldiers and heavy weapons to eastern Ukraine as it struggles to lay claim to the last patch of sovereign Ukrainian territory in Luhansk province, according to Ukrainian and Western officials.
“There are battles everywhere, everywhere the enemy is trying to break through the line of defense,” Serhiy Haidai, the head of the Luhansk regional military administration, said Wednesday. “They are trying to destroy all settlements, to later enter only the territory, not the settlement.”
A senior U.S. defense official described the contested area as equivalent to the stretch of land between Washington and Fairfax, Virginia, a distance of around 20 miles.
Rocket-propelled grenade launchers, artillery, mortars, tanks, bomber aircraft and long-range missiles are all being employed to clear the land of life to allow Russian infantry to advance, Haidai said.
The scorched-earth tactics have allowed the Russians to creep ever closer to Ukrainian positions within the city of Lysychansk, as part of Moscow’s drive to lay claim to the whole of the Donbas region to which Luhansk province belongs.
But even with the remarkable expenditure of ammunition, gains are slow. Since June 25, the Russians have managed to advance about 1.2 miles toward Lysychansk from the south, according to an estimate released Wednesday by the British military intelligence agency.
The Russian proxy forces in the region have said several times in recent days that the Ukrainians are encircled and retreating. The Ukrainian military denies the claims.
The accounts provided by the two armies could not be independently verified.
Haidai said Russia had deployed two combat battalions to the outskirts of Lysychansk, which he said included “thousands” of soldiers, vastly outnumbering the Ukrainians.
Still, he said, the Ukrainians were able to move humanitarian supplies into the city Wednesday and were maintaining defensive lines, inflicting “huge losses” daily on Russian forces.
The Ukrainian military high command said that the Russians were continuing to move men and equipment to the area to make up for heavy losses.
A senior U.S. defense department official told reporters this week that the Russians had been forced to employ reserves in recent weeks.
“The fact that the Russians are talking about reserves speaks to the impact the Ukrainians are taking on the Russian army,” the official said.
Ukraine’s government acknowledges that its forces are also suffering thousands of casualties.
Moscow has made it clear that it intends to keep grinding forward — moving from the last towns in Luhansk to fortified Ukrainian cities in the neighboring Donetsk region — and the Ukrainian military said Wednesday that the Kremlin was taking steps to prepare for renewed offensives in that direction.
What remains unclear, however, is how the beating suffered by both armies over months of brutal combat will affect each side’s ability to sustain both defensive and offensive operations.