War in Ukraine | Ukrainian forces reduced to curb patient Russian advance in Donbass

(Kramatorsk) In eastern Ukraine, the Russians, outnumbered and better armed, have gone from a steamroller strategy to that of patient nibbling, which the Kyiv forces at this stage can only with difficulty to oppose.

Posted at 10:41 a.m.

France Media Agency

“It’s not like in 2014, there is not a defined front along an axis”, explains Iryna Rybakova, press officer of the 93and brigade of Ukrainian forces, in reference to the war which opposed Kyiv to pro-Russian separatists in this region eight years ago and has never completely ended.

“It’s a village of their own, a village of ours: you have to visualize a chessboard instead”, continues the soldier. And after two weeks of Russian assault, “we are currently unable to push back the enemy”.

At 66and On Saturday, Russia seems far from the quick victory that its President Vladimir Putin wanted, according to analysts, for May 9, the commemoration of the victory over the Nazis in 1945 and a very important date in Russia.

Photo ANDREY BORODULIN, Agence France-Presse

Pro-Russian soldiers lead guard in the Donetsk region.

In southern Ukraine, Russian troops have taken the port of Mariupol, allowing them to open a land corridor to Kherson, further west, the only regional capital conquered since the start of the offensive.

But the Donbass, this mining basin encompassing the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that Russia claims to want to “liberate” from the yoke of Russophobic “Nazis”, in power according to it in Kyiv, is far from having fallen.

“If there is some advance of Russian troops on the ground, it is not very fast,” notes Russian military analyst Alexander Khramchikhine to AFP.

“Rough Advance”

“In the Luhansk region (north of Donbass, editor’s note), the objectives announced by Moscow are close to being achieved,” continues the analyst. “But in that of Donetsk, the advance is more difficult,” he adds. The front line, frozen since peace agreements signed in 2015, has not moved there for two months.

In the eyes of some on the ground, however, the Russian breakthrough is irreversible. “It’s too late for us,” judged a Ukrainian soldier assigned to maintenance, in an armored repair center where he can do nothing more for a broken down 40-year-old tank.

It is in the north of the region that the offensive is concentrated: Moscow is gradually closing its jaws there, descending towards Kramatorsk – the de facto “capital” of the Donbass controlled by Kyiv – from Izium, a city in northern Ukraine conquered at the beginning of april.

The Russian troops this time have for them – unlike the offensive on Kyiv at the start of the war – the advantage of direct logistical continuity with the rear.

In two weeks of assault, they have gained a foothold in several small localities where urban fighting is raging, such as Roubijné (57,000 inhabitants before the war), but no town of importance has been taken since the capture of Kreminna. (19,000 inhabitants) on April 18.

In the “third line”, in the sights of the Russian general staff, Kramatorsk and its twin Sloviansk have been largely evacuated by civilians and serve as a command center for the Ukrainian army.

Sign of the ambient pessimism, everything is already in place to curb the Russian troops: abandoned train on the level crossings, mining of the road infrastructures, anti-tank obstacles on the roads.


On the armament side, in the middle of the great hilly plains and industrial cities, the face to face is essentially done with artillery, “Goddess of war” according to the expression consecrated by Stalin.

But the balance of power remains extremely disproportionate, up to “five times superior in terms of equipment” according to Iryna Terehovytch, 40-year-old sergeant of the 123and Ukrainian brigade.

“We need tanks, artillery, anti-tank missiles”, testifies the non-commissioned officer: “In Kreminna, we only had a few NLAW (anti-tank missiles) and some did not work”.

Russian forces are also equipped with multiple rocket launchers which sometimes rain deadly rain on residential areas.

And faced with long-range missiles like the famous Tochka-U, with carcasses scattered in the fields, the Ukrainian defense only intercepts some of the projectiles.

The “closure” of the sky by NATO hoped for by Kyiv has not taken place. And Ukraine has only a few Su-24 and Su-25 planes left to launch over Russian positions.

On the ground, the Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbass would be between 40,000 and 50,000, according to analysts. Moscow does not communicate for its part on its forces in presence.

“Join our forces”

If they hold the ground, the many soldiers of the Ukrainian infantry feel overwhelmed.

“Viking”, a 27-year-old staff sergeant also returned from Kreminna, is demoralized. In his position, the men, exhausted, await the order to retreat.

“If it was a war of infantry against infantry, we would have chances. But in this sector, it’s first of all an artillery war and we don’t have enough”, summarizes the soldier: “For 300 shells, we fired three”.

“We are working more precisely, we have learned to save our ammunition”, retorts the spokesperson for the 93and brigade, Iryna Rybakova: “For example, we fire when their columns try to break through”.

Is the Ukrainian army then preparing to have to abandon this disputed region since 2014? For Alexander Khramchikhine, it is “unlikely that in these regions, the Russian troops will retreat”.

But, according to him, the Russian conquest will not be “finished before the end of the year”.

On the Ukrainian side, Sergeant Iryna Terehovytch says she faces a dilemma: “Either we are too heroic and we all fall, or we retreat, we stay alive and we try to regroup our forces”.

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