Momentum shifts in Ukraine war as Russia advances in Donbas

Sunken faces stare blankly from minivans carrying survivors from towns and villages battered by Russian tanks. Ukrainian ambulances carry the wounded and dead from the battlefield, sharing the road with rumbling tanks.

Detonations ring out in the distance as lost souls queue in this ghost town for gifts of food and medicine.

“Soon the shelling will come here,” predicts Serhii Barkov, 38, whose left arm is still bandaged from wounds sustained during the Russian bombardment of his eastern Ukrainian village of Studenok. “As soon as the shelling starts, you just run wherever your eyes can see,” he says, nervously puffing on a cigarette in front of the hospital. “It’s going to get worse here in a few days. I have to go.”

For Ukraine, the war has taken a dark, edgy turn in Donbass, the vast strip of farming towns, coal mines and chimney towns that forms much of the country’s eastern border with Russia. Divided between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists since 2014, the Donbass — home to more than 4 million people before Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine — appears in danger of falling entirely to Moscow.

The process could take weeks or months: a major breakthrough didn’t seem imminent as the war entered its 100th day this week. Ukrainian commanders still hope to turn the tide while launching counter-offensives to the south near the Russian-controlled city of Kherson and to the northeast outside the city of Kharkiv. But the dynamics in the east have clearly shifted under the incessant hail of Russian artillery.

Family spends time outside bomb shelter.

Valentyna Lazarevna, 80, hugs her granddaughter Nina Novokhatskaya, 20, outside an air raid shelter near Velyka Novosilka, Ukraine. Lazarevna said: “I want to go home, but it’s broken. I’m afraid. The shelling is almost every day.”

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Ukrainian forces, which repelled Moscow’s attacks on the country’s two most populous cities – Kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv – are now firmly on the defensive here.

President Biden’s announcement this week that Washington is supplying Ukraine with advanced missile systems has boosted some hopes of a turnaround on the battlefield. The Pentagon had previously deployed more than 100 long-range howitzers.

The Kremlin said the arms shipments would “add fuel to the fire” and constitute a proxy war intended to weaken Russia.

However, it is unclear to what extent the flood of new weapons will disrupt the Russian attack.

“I wouldn’t say this is a tipping point,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, an analyst at CNA, a research group based in Arlington, Virginia.

“I think the Russians will feel it. But it won’t suddenly reverse Russian gains,” added Edmonds, a former director for Russia on the White House National Security Council.

Despite reports of discouraged Russian troops, outdated equipment and a sclerotic command structure, Moscow seems to have seized the advantage in the eastern region – at least for now.

Ukrainian soldiers inspect a neighborhood.

A few kilometers from Russian positions, a Ukrainian soldier walks through a bombed neighborhood near Velyka Novosilka in Ukraine.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Residents of a house destroyed by a bomb.

Residents clear debris after a bombardment destroyed a house a day earlier on June 1, 2022 on the outskirts of Sloviansk, Ukraine.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

“What we’re seeing is the beginning of a tide turning towards Russia in the spirit of a war of attrition,” said Jonathan Eyal, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think tank. “[Moscow] has made it its mission not to try to overpower Ukraine.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin first tried to overthrow the Ukrainian government in a few days and install a puppet leader in Kyiv. Now those efforts seem to have been reduced to a land grab that can be hailed as a triumph to the Russian masses and the country’s compliant media.

At this point, Russia controls about 20% of Ukraine’s territory, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video appearance to Luxembourg lawmakers on Thursday. That’s more than about 7% of Ukrainian territory under Russian rule before the February 24 invasion, including Crimea and parts of the Donbass, which were ruled by pro-Russian separatists. Ukraine will never accept the Russian occupation, emphasizes Zelenskyy. On the other hand, the chances that Russia will ever return the country to Ukraine seem slim.

Whether this fundamental impasse over the disputed territories will be resolved – through military force, negotiation or other means – remains perhaps the big question mark of this grueling conflict.

A protracted World War I-style drudgery, based largely on artillery fire, the War in the East has been dubbed the “God of War” by none other than Joseph Stalin. Gone are the lumbering tank columns that slogged through enemy territory, lengthening supply lines and proving vulnerable to ambushes in Russia’s disastrous assault on Kyiv early in the invasion.

Russia’s subsequent focus on the Donbass, largely run by pro-Moscow separatist enclaves – and featuring battle-hardened Ukrainian allies fighting on home soil – represents a sort of return to Soviet-era military doctrine. It’s not New Age warfare: Deliberate ground advances are followed by scorched-earth artillery barrages that are giving way to opposition targets, decimating not only the Ukrainian military but also civilian homes, businesses, infrastructure and everything else in the Russian troops’ path.

A child exits the evacuation train in Ukraine.

A child says goodbye as he and his family depart on an evacuation train in Pokrovsk, Ukraine, June 2, 2022.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

“It’s the traditional Soviet and Russian approach: you concentrate a lot of firepower in a small location and keep going until you crush your opponent,” Eyal said. “A lot of blood was spilled in these rather miserable victories that Russia can claim.”

Since neither side of the conflict regularly reports the number of casualties, the number of dead and injured remains opaque.

“Tens of thousands” of civilians were killed, Zelenskyj said on Thursday before the Luxembourg parliament. A day earlier, he told Newsmax, the far-right American cable news channel, that between 60 and 100 Ukrainian soldiers are lost on the battlefield every week. Another 500 were injured, he said.

Last month Russia won its biggest victory of the war by defeating the last defenders of the port city of Mariupol – long a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance. His surrender, accompanied by images of bedraggled Ukrainian fighters surrendering months later at a metal works, was a strategic and propaganda coup for the Kremlin.

Mariupol is part of the Donetsk province, which together with the adjacent Luhansk forms the Donbass. The capture of the southern city completes a land corridor from Russian-held areas in Donbass to Crimea, the peninsula captured by the Russians in 2014.

About 265 kilometers northeast of Mariupol, Russian forces have now almost completely overrun their next major target: the industrial city of Severodonetsk, which has served as Ukraine’s administrative center for Luhansk province since 2014. Intense shelling has already displaced most residents, leaving much of the city in ruins, as has Mariupol. Amidst the rubble, opposing forces engaged in street fighting. The imminent fall of Severodonetsk also threatens Lysychansk, which lies across the Seversky Donets River.

Losing the sister cities would mean that Russia effectively controls all of Luhansk.

Meanwhile, Russia has already accelerated attacks toward Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the two main cities in Donetsk province that are still under Ukrainian government control.

For more than a month, Russian troops have been staging operations, attacking villages with indiscriminate artillery fire outside of Severodonetsk, cutting off supply routes for military and civilians.

The sheer numerical superiority of the Russians, both in troops and materiel, means that a takeover is usually not a question of if, but when. “They never stop shooting,” said a Ukrainian soldier stationed near the town of Lyman before it fell into Russian hands last month.

Woman put out her candles

Nadia Schamal, 66, has been living underground in Velyka Novosilka, Ukraine, for almost three months since the start of the war.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Residents protected by Ukrainian soldiers

Residents get some fresh air after hiding in a basement of a bomb-damaged building near Velyka Novosilka in Ukraine.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

The relentless campaign has reduced once-thriving communities to vast fields of rubble.

Rubizhne was a quaint town of more than 50,000 people outside of Severodonetsk until Putin’s troops invaded.

The attack began in April. Artillery duels erupted over Rubizhne. This gave way to street battles. Ukrainian defenders bunkered in a pharmaceutical factory before eventually retreating across a bridge to Severodonetsk. Then they blasted the span to slow their pursuers.

A video from a drone of the Ukrainian National Guard shows the aftermath: Russian soldiers walk through the streets, hardly a single building is standing; none are undamaged, the rubble revealing Rubizhne in almost every color except grey.

Six weeks later, Rubishne is firmly under Russian control, one of three staging areas for the all-out attack on Severodonetsk. Residents from surrounding towns are wondering – as they have been doing for months – whether it is time to leave.

Times editors McDonnell reported from Kramatorsk and Bulos from Severodonetsk and Rubizhne. Momentum shifts in Ukraine war as Russia advances in Donbas

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