Ukraine says its bet on diverting Russian attention is paying off
By Andrew E. Kramer
At one point on the front line, Ukrainian soldiers advanced by creeping forward on their bellies 50 yards at a time, digging new trenches at every stop.
Elsewhere, soldiers with the 93rd Brigade captured about 3 miles of wheat fields — and a Russian tank. Another unit liberated a village last week.
Out on the rolling plains of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, soldiers and commanders are pointing to these modest gains as a measurable result of Ukraine’s strategy of publicly, and frequently, telegraphing its intentions to attack Russia along another front in the war: southern Ukraine.
The Russian army, they say, has been diverting soldiers to the south to meet the Ukrainian attack, reducing the intensity of fighting in the east — and allowing Ukraine to regain slivers of land there.
Western military analysts have noted the diversion of Russian forces and a reduction of violence in the Donbas, which had been the focus of the Russian army since it failed to capture Kyiv, the capital, in the spring. Throughout the region, the intensity of Russian artillery fire has declined. On narrow sections of front near the towns of Bakhmut, Pisky and Avdiivka, Russian attacks have persisted.
The fighting in the Ukraine war is effectively divided between two theaters, the east and the south, with Ukraine seeking to slow or stop Russian advances in the east while counterattacking in the south.
Where to concentrate forces has become a quandary confronting both armies, leaving commanders in a guessing game about the other side’s intentions, as the summer has become a period of feints and rare, public pronouncements of planned military operations by both sides in the Donbas and the south of Ukraine.
The Russians are most vulnerable, in Ukraine’s view, on territory they hold on the western side of the broad Dnieper River. In recent weeks, the Ukrainian military has struck two bridges used for resupply and Saturday hit the spans again as Russian engineers sought to repair them.
Russian forces have been reinforcing positions in the south, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Saturday in an assessment of the war, and “Ukrainian forces are focusing their targeting on bridges, ammunition depots and rail links with growing frequency.” The reinforcements could defend or preempt Ukraine’s attack with an offensive of their own.
The effect of all this on the eastern theater of the conflict came into focus in recent weeks, said Yuriy Bereza, commander of the Dnipro-1 unit in Ukraine’s national guard, which is fighting outside the eastern city of Sloviansk.
“We have reached a situation of parity” in the war in eastern Ukraine, Bereza said.
As with everything in this war, much remains opaque, and at least some analysts say the slowdown in the east has more to do with Russia’s need to rebuild its forces and less to do with splitting its attention with the south.
After capturing the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in late June, the Russian military declared what it called an operational pause to regroup and rearm. Independent analysts had said the Russian force suffered extensive casualties and units would need to be reconstituted.
Bereza also credited the appearance on the battlefield of American-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, which strike with precision far behind Russian lines, for quieting Russia’s artillery. The systems, known as HIMARS, arrived about a month ago, just as the counteroffensive was ramping up in the south.
“The first time I heard a HIMARS launch it was like music to my ears,” he said. “It is the most beautiful music for Ukrainian soldiers.”