Russia Pays a Bloody Price for Small Gains on Eastern Front
KYIV, Ukraine — As Russia makes slow, bloody gains in a renewed push to capture more of eastern Ukraine, it is pouring ever more conscripts and military supplies into the battle, Ukrainian officials say. Still it remains far from clear that Moscow can mobilize enough forces to sustain a prolonged offensive.
The Ukrainian military said on Tuesday that Russian forces were attacking in five different directions along the crescent-shaped front line in the east, relying on masses of troops to try to overrun Ukrainian positions. The tactic has allowed Russia to make incremental gains in recent weeks and, according to U.S. officials, to slowly tighten a noose around the key Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut. But the strategy has come at a cost of hundreds of dead and wounded soldiers each day.
“The major threat is the quantity,” Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian governor of the eastern region of Luhansk, told Ukrainian television on Tuesday. “It is a huge monster that is at war with us, and it owns immense resources — not endless, but still. There are too many of them.”
Mr. Haida had said earlier that a “full-scale offensive” could begin after Feb. 15, as the Kremlin strains to show progress around the one-year mark of its invasion.
Amid reports that President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine would visit Brussels on Thursday to meet with European Union leaders for a long-planned summit, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency repeated a warning that Moscow planned to mobilize as many as half a million more soldiers to sustain its campaign. That would be “in addition to the 300,000 mobilized in October 2022,” Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy intelligence chief, wrote in a lengthy statement released Monday night assessing the state of the war.
But Western intelligence officials have questioned whether President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia could quickly find hundreds of thousands more soldiers without triggering a greater domestic backlash. The Kremlin is already struggling to train and arm the soldiers it does have, military analysts have said.
Britain’s defense intelligence agency said on Tuesday that Russia had been trying to launch “major offensive operations” since early last month, with the aim of capturing the rest of the Donetsk region, which includes Bakhmut. But it had “only managed to gain several hundred meters of territory per week,” in part because of a lack of munitions, the agency said in its latest daily assessment of the war.
But that hasn’t stopped Ukraine from sounding the alarm about a massive Russian buildup to come, as it agitates for more powerful weapons from the West. It first predicted that Russia would mobilize 500,000 new soldiers in January, a move that has not materialized.
As they have in the past, Ukrainian forces could answer a Russian offensive with a counteroffensive, but some military analysts have suggested that Ukraine would do better taking a strong defensive position that ultimately weakens Russia’s forces.
The State of the War
- A New Offensive: As the war intensifies in Eastern Ukraine, doctors struggle to handle an influx of injuries and soldiers fret over the prospect of new waves of conscripts arriving from Russia.
- Russia’s Economy: Shunned by the West, Russia was for a time able to redirect its oil exports to Asia and adopt sanction evasion schemes. But there are signs that Western controls are beginning to have a deep impact on the country’s energy earnings.
- Leadership Shake-Up: President Volodymyr Zelensky’s political party will replace Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov. The expected move comes amid a widening corruption scandal, although Mr. Reznikov was not implicated in wrongdoing.
- Nuclear Fears Abate: U.S. policymakers and intelligence analysts are less worried about Russia using nuclear weapons in the war. But the threat could re-emerge, they say.
“Arguably, UA is better served absorbing the RU attack & exhausting RU offensive potential, then taking the initiative later this spring,” Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, VA., wrote on Monday in an extended analytical thread on Twitter, referring to Ukraine and Russia.
The Kremlin continued to insist it was making progress in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, told reporters that combat operations near Bakhmut and the town of Vuhledar, to the south, “are developing successfully,” the official Tass news agency reported.
While Moscow’s willingness to sacrifice large numbers of soldiers for only marginal gains has been demonstrated time and again over the course of the war, Mr. Putin has been reticent to publicly announce a second wave of mobilization. The announcement of a partial mobilization in Russia last September led hundreds of thousands of fighting-age men to flee the country.
Moscow’s latest push along the eastern front has relied upon inexperienced new recruits and former convicts to rush toward Ukrainian positions, straining Kyiv’s forces but also producing heavy casualties. A Russian opposition publication, Mediazona, has said that fewer Russian prisoners are willing to sign up for combat because of reports of high casualties among penal colony recruits.
Mr. Haidai said on Tuesday that Ukrainian officials had observed Russian commanders keeping newly arriving units of freshly mobilized soldiers separated from each other. The reason, he said, was to keep word of losses in the Russian ranks from spreading.
“They have a huge number of dead and wounded, and the commanders are trying to prevent panic among fighters in this way,” Mr. Haidai said.
Ukraine’s Western allies have been rushing to provide tanks, armored vehicles and long-range weapons to bolster Kyiv’s defenses. On Tuesday, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands announced a plan to send around 100 Leopard 1 tanks to Ukraine, some of which could arrive “within a few months” — a far shorter timeline than the more advanced tanks Ukraine’s Western allies have pledged.
Mr. Zelensky’s visit to Brussels on Thursday, if it happens, would likely be aimed at shoring up political support as the European Union deals with the economic fallout of the war and the cost of hosting more than four million Ukrainian refugees. It would follow a visit by top E.U. leaders to Kyiv last week.
As part of a visit to Brussels, Mr. Zelensky would likely address the European Parliament on Thursday, according to an email from the Parliament’s secretary general to European lawmakers that was reviewed by The New York Times. Mr. Zelensky’s possible presence, which hinges on security arrangements, was reported earlier by The Financial Times.
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council of member nation leaders, invited Mr. Zelensky to participate in person at “a future summit.” The invitation was announced in a Twitter post by a spokesman for Mr. Michel and did not specify any details of the invitation or its timing.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said on a state news broadcast on Monday night that his department was working on a number of possible visits by Mr. Zelensky, “but when and where they will take place, you will find out from the president himself and from his office,” according to the Ukrinform news agency.
A visit this week, if it happens, would be the Ukrainian leader’s second known trip outside his country since Russia invaded nearly a year ago. In December, Mr. Zelensky visited Washington to meet with President Biden and deliver an emotional plea to Congress.
Last month, Ukraine received more heavy military aid from the United States, as well as the promise of Abrams tanks.
European nations have largely closed ranks behind Ukraine, in some cases at great cost to their economies, including by severing their energy links to Russia. They have also dealt with the fallout of ratcheting up the economic costs of the war for the Kremlin through sanctions — while Mr. Zelensky has been pushing for more, and better enforced, economic penalties for Moscow.
Ukraine was granted E.U. candidate status in June, but the recent visit by European leaders to Kyiv underscored that the country was unlikely to be admitted to the club soon. Mr. Zelensky’s request for an expedited process has also fallen flat.
Still, Mr. Zelensky needs the European Union’s financial support to keep his embattled country running and avoid a default on its debts. And his country will need enormous sums of funding to ultimately rebuild.
In Ukraine, the head of the Donetsk regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said that if the position of the country’s forces fighting around Bakhmut became untenable, a decision could be made to withdraw.
“Life and health of our defenders is one of the main priorities,” he said in an interview with Radio Liberty. “Therefore, nobody’s going to use them as cannon fodder. For now, Bakhmut is standing. We are doing everything in our power to liquidate as many Russians as possible to slow down their offensive.”
Marc Santora reported from Kyiv, Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels and Shashank Bengali from London. Neil MacFarquhar and Erika Solomon contributed reporting.