Ukraine moves ‘step by step’ as pace slows in carrying out offensives in east
Ukrainian soldiers west of Kreminna last month.
By MATTHEW MPOKE BIGG
It started with an eruption of firepower, as Russian forces poured across the border and launched a multipronged assault on Ukraine. But 10 months into the war, the tempo — and the fortune of Russian forces — has drastically changed.
“We are moving forward little by little, step by step,” Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said Sunday in a post on the Telegram social messaging app. While she was referring to fighting in the eastern Donbas region, her assessment could be applied to the conflict as a whole.
The war has already defied the expectations of some experts, especially those who said that Russian forces would overwhelm Ukraine within weeks. As the war’s second year approaches, the prevailing sentiment as to how things could unfold is one of caution. But both sides have signaled that new offensives are front of mind, not least for Ukraine, which seeks to recapture all of the territory it has lost since 2014.
In the early weeks of the war, Russian forces made gains in the south but, crucially, failed to reach their objective of seizing the capital city, Kyiv, and were forced back by ferocious Ukrainian resistance.
But with control of the southern Kherson region, they pivoted to a new objective: Claim all of the Donbas region — composed of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces — in eastern Ukraine. In July, they seized the last city under Ukrainian control in Luhansk, but, since then, their offensive has largely stalled.
The momentum shifted in Ukraine’s favor during an August counteroffensive, aided by longer range weapons supplied by Western allies. In the space of a few weeks in the fall, Ukraine routed Russian troops in the northeastern province of Kharkiv and then forced them to withdraw from the southern city of Kherson in November.
But the rate of territorial change — in either side’s favor — has slowed. Autumn rains turned ground into mud, a challenge for fighting vehicles.
Military experts say that several factors explain the slower pace and seemingly smaller gains. Among them are the relative density of Russian forces in the Donbas region; the natural barrier posed by the Dnieper River in the south of the country, which has impeded Ukraine’s advance; the need by Ukraine to conserve and reconstitute its forces after a series of battles; and the winter weather, which has posed difficulties for both sides.
“It felt going into the winter that the Russian military was the most vulnerable and the job of the Ukrainian military was to press the Russian military, to prevent force reconstitution, to maintain the initiative heading into the winter and the spring and then conduct an offensive at the time of their choosing,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “That’s not how things have played out.”
He said that Russian forces have imposed on Ukraine a “difficult, grinding fight” around Bakhmut in Donetsk province, which Moscow has been trying to take for months, and around Kreminna in Luhansk province, a target of Ukraine’s since the fall.
“The occupiers try to hold Kreminna to prevent their defense in Luhansk region from splitting in half,” the regional military governor, Serhiy Haidai, said Sunday in a post on Facebook.
He told Ukrainian television Sunday that recent weather was posing a challenge to both sides, with heavy equipment getting stuck.
“In a day or two, it will freeze seriously, and it will be possible to drive normally without worrying about the fact that a tank or other equipment might get stuck,” he said. “I hope that the advantage will be on our side. For faster advancement, we just lacked the support of heavy equipment.”
Recent strikes in occupied territories in the south and east on Russian military infrastructure and troop concentrations also suggest that Ukraine is extending a tactic it employed over the summer. In the most deadly of those, the Kremlin said that 89 Russian troops were killed in Donetsk province over the New Year holiday.
Russian forces are still inflicting great pain on Ukrainians, unleashing waves of missiles and exploding drones aimed at crippling the country’s energy infrastructure. While President Vladimir Putin ordered a brief cease-fire over the weekend to observe Orthodox Christmas, there was little change in the scale of fighting.
Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia might sharply escalate the war in a winter offensive. And the new armored fighting vehicles Western allies offered to Ukraine last week signaled they were gearing up for another bloody year as the war enters a new phase of Ukrainian offensives against dug-in Russian forces.
On Sunday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, acknowledged that “the situation on the front line has not changed significantly in the first week of the year.” In his nightly address, he stressed that “resilience” was key.