DONETSK REGION, Ukraine — The Ukrainian soldier walked to the edge of the river, looked toward the sound of artillery in the distance and cast his fishing rod toward the murky green water below. His nonchalance on Ukraine’s front line close to the eastern city of Lyman was telling: His comrades nearby were winning.
To the southeast, less than 30 miles away, a group of Ukrainian soldiers, rifles slung and helmets donned, moved cautiously to the wreckage of a destroyed bridge in the center of another city — Bakhmut. The high pitched whistle of a Russian artillery round, followed by a plume of dirt and smoke nearby, sent just as telling a signal: The Russians were pounding away, and getting close.
The battle for the critical Donbas region in Ukraine’s east is now centered on these two strategically important cities; the fighting is fierce as both armies race to claim new ground before winter sets in.
In the broader war, momentum remains with the Ukrainians, whose sweeping victories in the country’s northeast this month exposed ineptitude and glaring weaknesses in the Russian force. But the Donbas, which President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia considers his primary prize, is a different, more entrenched fight.
Ukraine is pushing hard to reclaim Lyman, a railway juncture that serves as an important supply hub on the western edge of the Donbas. Russian forces control the city, but Ukraine is hoping to use it as a gateway to push farther east and maintain its momentum.
Bakhmut is an entry point to part of the region still held by Ukrainian forces. Capturing it would also give Russia a win after being routed in humiliating fashion in the north. The Russians have been shelling Bakhmut incessantly for the past three months.
The fight for Bakhmut and Lyman comes down to strategic positioning for both sides before the front lines stagnate in the cold weather. If the cities are under Ukrainian control, Kyiv’s forces will be prepared to claw back lost territory in the coming months. Under Russian occupation, and with reinforcements, they will help Russia put Donbas’s two major cities — Kramatorsk and Sloviansk — under increasing threat and more frequent shelling.
In Lyman, the Ukrainians have seen some success. Their formations are attacking the city from the south and the west and capturing villages in the suburbs as they advance.
Cut off from Russian supplies to the north following Ukraine’s recent offensive, Lyman was originally considered a potential quick conquest. But Russian reinforcements have arrived in the city, Ukrainian soldiers say, and have slowed their advance, at least for now. And with Ukrainian troops focusing on Lyman, Russian units have had time to retrench farther to the east.
“Everything is changing very fast here,” a Ukrainian soldier positioned just south of the city said recently, requesting anonymity for security reasons. In the past week, Ukrainian forces fought into the village of Shchurove, a small resort town near the city, wedged between dense forests and the Siversky Donets river.
Russian forces had captured Shchurove, along with Lyman, in the spring. Residents who recently evacuated from the town said that Russian soldiers had mostly left them alone: they came to inspect documents but rarely handed out humanitarian aid.
“In the last three days, after our guys came, hell broke loose completely,” said Lena, a middle-age woman, speaking of the Ukrainian advance. She had just been evacuated by a lumbering Ukrainian amphibious transport vehicle, its dark green hull still soaked from crossing the Siversky Donets. “Shooting, screeching,” Lena added. “Horrible echo, unclear from where. Who, what, where — nothing was clear.’’
In Bakhmut, Russia is replicating Ukraine’s strategy of attacking from two directions. Ukrainian troops entrenched around the city are being worn down and are under attack from the east and south. They have taken a steady stream of casualties and vehicles losses. At least one village near Bakhmut’s outskirts was captured by the Russians earlier this month.
“The main problem now is that we need to hold Bakhmut,” said Lt. Col. Yurii Bereza, a battalion commander with Ukraine’s National Guard whose forces are spread across a 150 kilometer frontline (about 90 miles), much of it in the Donbas.
Moscow’s forces had steadily gained territory in the Donbas over the summer, seizing the sister cities of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk. But following their recent offensive, Ukrainian troops recaptured some small villages in the region’s western periphery.
The Russian military in Ukraine is “overstretched,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a defense research institute in Arlington, Va. “It has lost the initiative and lacks the forces to defend a vast battlefield.”
The evidence of Russia’s force shortage comes as the Kremlin mobilizes hundreds of thousands of men, some of whom will likely be sent to the front in the coming weeks and months. Though their training might be questionable, and their effectiveness limited, these new Russian soldiers will still serve as an obstacle for the smaller and lesser armed Ukrainian forces.
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Already, areas around Lyman and Bakhmut are being buffeted with Russian reinforcements.
“The thing is, there were one or two of them per square meter before,” said Colonel Bereza, referring to the number of Russian soldiers on the frontline before they haphazardly retreated from the northeast. “And now it’s 10, on account of the front’s constriction.”
The Donbas, a region roughly the size of New Hampshire, is made up of rolling fields, postage-stamp sized mining towns and hulking plateaus of slag heaps discarded from the area’s constellation of coal mines. In 2014, Russian-backed separatists formed two breakaway republics there, fighting the Ukrainian government for eight years until the Russians launched their invasion in February.
The region’s terrain — fields, tree lines and rivers — has prompted both sides to use whatever tactics they can to funnel enemy troops into choke points. For months, the Siversky Donets river has defined chunks of the Donbas’s front line because neither side could safely attack across the waterway until recently.
Around Bakhmut, a city with a prewar population of around 70,000, Russian forces have been unhindered by waterways, although Bakhmut is divided by a north-south river that has become increasingly important with each Russian advance.
Unlike in Lyman, where there is a mix of Russian reservists, separatists and regular army forces, the area around Bakhmut is largely controlled by the Wagner Group, an infamous paramilitary force that reports directly to the Kremlin.
Ukrainian soldiers near the front say that Wagner’s ranks are bolstered by prison inmates from the separatist regions who were drafted into service. One Ukrainian soldier, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, said Wagner’s forces attack only so far before sending inmates with little support forward to face Ukrainian guns like “cannon fodder.”
These tactics have left Ukrainian forces in the region with a flood of prisoners as the inmates frequently surrender. Another soldier, who also spoke anonymously, said Russian forces would not trade captured Ukrainian forces for inmates: the onetime Russian prisoners, now Ukrainian prisoners, are seen as deserters.
Still, Russian forces have slowly encroached on Bakhmut. Machine gunfire on its outskirts is constant — a marked change from the artillery exchanges that have defined the war in the Donbas.
These battles have seesawed back and forth for weeks: Russian forces shell and advance. Ukrainian troops lose vehicles and men and a few hundred yards of territory. Ukrainian soldiers then try to regain territory by mounting counterattacks.
“We’re killing lots and lots of them but they still keep coming,” another Ukrainian soldier said.
Ukrainian commanders in Bakhmut said recently that even the presence of U.S.-supplied rocket systems, known as HIMARS, have failed to put much of a dent in the Russian supply chain. That’s a marked change from Ukrainian commanders’ accounts over the summer when the weapons first arrived — suggesting that Russia had adapted to the strikes by better dispersing its ammunition stockpiles.
Trapped in the middle of the bloody back and forth are civilians desperate for the fighting to stop.
Some Ukrainian cities under Russian assault move through stages as they are attacked. First the city outskirts are shelled, then the city centers — infrequent at first but with increasing volume as the days and weeks drag on. Emergency responders and public services endure for as long as possible before their equipment is either destroyed or their staff flee or die.
A city’s loss of electricity, water, heat and cellphone service usually signals the beginning of complete isolation.
Bakhmut and its citizens have tried to resist entering that last stage. Park grass is overgrown, dumpsters overflow with trash and what looks like the charred hulk of an ambulance sits outside the city hospital. Earlier in the month, Bakhmut lost power, water and cell service, but in recent days it has been restored in some parts of the city.
The fighting is “getting worse and worse,” said Andriy, a shopkeeper in the center of the city. “The bridge was blown up, the shelling is constant.”
“But,” said a lanky man in his 40s, his eyes flashing and happy about the sausage he just bought from Andriy, “I had perfect cell service yesterday.”