Russia presses Ukraine front after Bakhmut slowdown

Mike Collett-White |

Russian rockets launched against Ukraine streak across the sky at dawn in Kharkiv.
Russian rockets launched against Ukraine streak across the sky at dawn in Kharkiv.

Russian forces are attacking northern and southern stretches of the front in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, even as Kyiv says Moscow’s assault is flagging near the city of Bakhmut.

Ukrainian military reports on Friday described heavy fighting along a line running from Lyman to Kupiansk, as well as in the south at Avdiivka on the outskirts of the Russian-held city of Donetsk.

Both areas have been major Russian targets in a winter campaign to fully capture Ukraine’s industrialised Donbas region. The offensive has yielded scant gains despite the deaths of thousands of troops on both sides in the war’s bloodiest fighting.

The front lines have barely budged since November, despite intense fighting. Ukraine recaptured swathes of territory in the second half of 2022, but has since kept mostly to the defensive, while Russia has attacked with hundreds of thousands of freshly called-up reservists and convicts recruited from prison.

As winter turns to spring, the main question in Ukraine is how much longer Russia can sustain its offensive, and when or whether Ukraine can reverse the momentum with a counterassault.

Meeting in Ottawa on Friday, US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed their “steadfast support for the Ukrainian people as they defend themselves against Putin’s brutal and barbaric invasion”, Trudeau said.

On Thursday, the commander of Ukrainian ground forces said Russia’s assault on Bakhmut, a small city that has been the focus of the biggest battle of the war, appeared to be losing steam and Kyiv could go on the offensive “very soon”.

For now, Ukrainian forces are still focused on preventing a Russian advance along more than 300 kilometres of Donbas front, from Kupiansk in the north to Vuhledar in the south.

“Shelling of Avdiivka does not stop – artillery, rockets, mortars,” said Oleksiy Dmytrashkyvskyi of Ukraine’s Tavria military command, responsible for southern areas.

Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for the east command defending the front farther north, said Russia’s main focus was on a stretch from Kupiansk to Lyman recaptured by Ukrainian forces last year.

Both said the Russians were reinforcing after heavy losses. There was no similar update from the Russian side, which has long claimed to be inflicting heavy casualties on the Ukrainians.

In Bakhmut, Ukrainian troops, who weeks ago appeared likely to pull back, have instead dug in, a strategy some Western military experts say is risky given the need to conserve forces for a counterattack.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said some 10,000 Ukrainian civilians, many elderly and with disabilities, were suffering “very dire conditions” in and around Bakhmut.

The United Nations issued its latest report on rights abuses in the war, confirming thousands of civilian deaths, which it describes as the tip of the iceberg, as well as disappearances, torture and rape, mostly of Ukrainians in Russian-occupied areas. Russia denies atrocities.

Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, saying Ukraine’s ties to the West were a security threat. Since then, tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians as well as soldiers on both sides have been killed. Kyiv and the West call the war an unprovoked assault to subdue an independent country.

Dmitry Medvedev, a hardline Kremlin official, said Moscow wants to create demilitarised zones around Ukrainian territory it claims to have annexed, and would otherwise battle deep into Ukraine.

While Russia’s invasion has wreaked colossal damage in Ukraine, increased defence spending, Western sanctions and the loss of hundreds of thousands of young men from the workforce have also caused economic upheaval at home.

The Social Policy Institute at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics found in a study released this week that, even in its most optimistic scenario, real incomes would only exceed 2021 levels by two per cent by the decade’s end and a middle class that grew after Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 would shrink markedly.