Eastern Ukraine prepares for new Russian offensive

NEVSKE, Ukraine — In a small village in eastern Ukraine, the epicenter of the next phase of the war, Lyudmila Degtyaryova measures Russia’s advance by listening to the explosions of incoming artillery shells.

There are more and more of them. And they are coming more often, as the Russian army moves forward.

“You should see the fireworks here,” said 61-year-old Degtyaryova, as fireworks howled around her. “It’s like the New Year.”

The Russian military is preparing to launch a new offensive that could soon swallow Ms. Degtyaryova’s village of Nevske, and perhaps more in the eastern Ukraine region known as the Donbas. But the impact of the intensified Russian offensive is being felt in towns and villages along hundreds of miles of the undulating eastern front.

The exhausted Ukrainian army complained that it was outnumbered and armed, even before Russia delivered most of its roughly 200,000 newly mobilized troops. And doctors at hospitals speak of growing losses as they struggle to care for boxers with gruesome injuries.

The civilians who were thwarting Russia’s offensive plan were once again faced with the painful decision of whether to leave or stay and await the coming disaster. This area north of the Donbas was one of the last to be liberated in a flash Ukraine offensive last fall, giving locals hope that their traumatic months were over.

But the war is back. Two weeks ago, a Russian shell landed in Miss Degtyaryova’s yard, and as she pondered her future over the weekend, what was left of her barn was still smoldering.

She has rabbits, ducks and three pregnant cows to take care of. A chicken, its feathers partially burned in a recent strike, recuperates on a hay bed, its injured little paw in a homemade cast.

If the Russians return, she lamented, she will have to flee.

“Honestly, I have already started packing my things,” she said. “The soldiers will cover my back and I will go. I will release my cows and I will go. I don’t want to go back there anymore.”

When and where the new offensive will begin in earnest remains unclear, but Ukrainian officials are deeply concerned. The Ukrainian military defied dire pre-war assessments, thwarting Russia’s initial efforts to capture the capital, Kyiv, and ultimately repelling Russian forces to the northeast and south.

But the Russian army kept coming. Currently, the newly deployed force is completing training and entering the field; forces include as many soldiers as they did in the first invasion last year.

Serhiy Haidai, governor of the Luhansk region, which includes Nevske, said they could be combat ready in as little as two weeks – much earlier than new Western weapons, including tanks and combat vehicles. heavily armored, is expected to arrive in Ukraine.

“There are many,” Mr. Haidai said of the new recruits. “These are not professional soldiers, but there are still 200,000 people shooting in our direction.”

Russia is expected to take a big punch, looking to reverse almost a year of consecutive setbacks. While a new assault on Kyiv is currently considered unlikely, Russian forces will likely attempt to recapture the territories they lost last fall. as well as complete control of Donbas, a key goal of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

Military analysts say a possible scenario is that Russian forces will descend from the north and advance from the south in an arc, creating a large claw that could cut off the lines of communication. Ukraine’s economy runs from east to west. That would put villages like Nevske on the path of direct Russian advance.

For the locals that would be a disaster. Here, on the far edge of the Ukrainian offensive, people did not experience the fruits of liberation in the way that Ukrainians further west did. There was still no electricity or water and the fighting never subsided. Fields of unharvested black sunflowers are littered with snow-covered craters, and the area is littered with burned tanks, unexploded landmines, and frequently killing livestock. Passing through this area, people occasionally come across their frozen bodies or bones.

In Makiivka, just north of Nevske, five of Ruslan Vasilchenko’s cows were killed, and the rest were huddled together one recent day in a small barn full of shrapnel. There was a burned tank in his garden and two destroyed cars in his yard. He said he expected things to get much worse soon.

“For the past few days, soldiers have come to tell us not to leave our homes,” he said.

The first phase of the Russian offensive has begun. The Ukrainian military says that Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine that Russian forces have been trying to capture since the summer, is likely to fall soon. Elsewhere, Russian forces are advancing in small groups and probing the front lines for Ukraine’s weak points.

These efforts have strained Ukraine’s military, already exhausted after nearly 12 months of fierce fighting.

The army said they had tanks and artillery, but neither was enough, and had far less ammunition than their opponents. Russian forces have also begun to equip more sophisticated weapons, such as the T-90 tank, which is equipped with technology capable of detecting targeting systems of anti-tank weapons such as the American-made Javelin, limit their effectiveness.

For the most part, however, the challenge stems from the numbers.

“It’s especially difficult when you have 50 men and they have 300,” said a 35-year-old infantryman named Pavlo, who was struck in the eye by a rocket-propelled grenade near Bakhmut. “You take them out and they keep coming and coming. Have a lot of.”

Losses among Ukrainian forces were severe. Soldiers in a volunteer squad called Carpathian Sich, stationed near Nevske, say about 30 fighters in their group have died in recent weeks, and soldiers say, in part jokingly, that most everyone was shocked.

“It’s winter and positions are open; there’s nowhere to hide,” said a soldier from the unit with the Rusin sign.

At a frontline hospital in Donbass, the morgue is filled with the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers in white plastic bags. At another hospital, stretchers carrying wounded soldiers covered with gold leaf thermal blankets crowded the corridors, and a steady stream of ambulances arrived from the front almost throughout the day.

Myroslav Dubenko, 36, a military surgeon at that hospital, scrolled through photos of soldiers with gruesome injuries: a blown lower jaw, half of their face missing. A soldier was rushed in with his throat cut from ear to ear. Dr. Dubenko was able to quickly repair the damage and the soldier survived.

“In civilian life, you know that no matter how terrible your shift is, it will end sooner or later,” Dr. Dubenko said. “Here, you never know when it will end.”

It’s not just the influx of soldiers that are consuming doctors; civilians are also frequent victims of Russian attacks. For Andriy Drobnytsky, a 27-year-old military medic, this is part of a deliberate strategy to overwhelm Ukraine’s military hospitals. Last week, a retired warden was admitted to the military hospital where Dr. Drobnytsky was working, his hand blown up by a mortar shell that exploded as he was collecting firewood. Dr. Drobnytsky assisted in suturing his hand, presumably to save his index finger.

“If there are many victims, we will be distracted by them,” he said. “You can’t just abandon them, can you?”

Whether Russia can make use of its numerical strength is an open question. Russian soldiers, according to Ukraine and the West, are dying in much greater numbers. American officials now estimate the number of Russian soldiers injured and killed at nearly 200,000, a staggering casualty rate.

In his sleeping quarters at a base near Bakhmut, a soldier nicknamed Badger pulled out a canvas bag and dumped its contents onto a crib. Inside were half a dozen knives – one with a hilt made of deer hooves – of booty he said he had taken from the bodies of dead Russian soldiers.

“We had losses too, but they were huge losses,” Badger said. “We wasted all of them in bulk.”

Back near Nevske, soldiers from the Carpathian Sich said they had enough ammunition to hold on for the moment. One soldier, nicknamed Diesel, showed videos on his phone of the bodies of Russian soldiers he killed when they got too close.

Since the beginning of the war, the Russians have continued to make stupid mistakes, he said. Diesel said that from a dead officer, he took a tablet without an access code with the coordinates of all their mines and snipers.

In the video he recorded from the front, Diesel approaches a body lying in the snow, the muzzle of his rifle pointed at the Russian’s head.

“Hello,” he whispered after confirming the man was dead. “Did you sleep well?”


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