In eastern Ukraine, the outnumbered and better-armed Russians have shifted from a steamroller strategy to a strategy of patient nibbling, which the Kiev forces are finding little to counter at this stage.
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“It’s not like 2014, there is no front defined along an axis,” explains Iryna Rybakova, press secretary of the 93rd brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, referring to the war that pro-Russian separatists in Kyiv opposed in this region for eight years and has never quite stopped.
“It’s a village of its own, a village of ours: you have to imagine a chessboard instead,” the soldier continues. And after two weeks of Russian onslaught, “we cannot push the enemy back at this time.”
On Saturday, the 66th day of the war, Russia seems a long way from the quick victory that analysts say President Vladimir Putin would like for May 9 to commemorate the victory over the Nazis in 1945 and a very important date in Russia Has.
In southern Ukraine, Russian forces have taken the port of Mariupol, allowing them to open a land corridor to Kherson further west, the only regional capital captured since the offensive began.
But the Donbass, this mine basin with the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, which Russia says it wants to “liberate” from the yoke of the Russophobic “Nazis” and that claims to be in power in Kyiv, is far from falling.
“When Russian troops advance a little on the ground, it’s not very fast,” Russian military analyst Alexander Khramchikhine told AFP.
“In the Lugansk region (north of Donbass, editor’s note) the targets announced by Moscow are about to be achieved,” the analyst continued. “But in Donetsk the advance is more difficult,” he adds.
Frozen since the peace accords in 2015, the front line has not moved for two months.
In the eyes of some on the ground, however, the Russian breakthrough is irreversible. “It’s too late for us,” said a Ukrainian serviceman assigned to maintenance at a tank repair center where there is nothing he can do for a 40-year-old tank.
In the north of the region, the offensive is concentrated: Moscow is gradually closing its jaws there, descending from Izium, a city in northern Ukraine captured at the beginning, to Kramatorsk – the de facto “capital” of Kyiv-controlled Donbass April.
This time, unlike the offensive on Kyiv at the beginning of the war, the Russian troops have the advantage of direct logistical continuity with their backs.
In two-week attacks they gained a foothold in several small towns where urban fighting is raging, such as Roubijné (57,000 pre-war inhabitants), but no town of importance has been taken since taking Kreminna (19,000 inhabitants). on 04/18
In the “third line,” targeted by the Russian General Staff, Kramatorsk and its twin brother, Sloviansk, have been largely evacuated by civilians and serve as the command center of the Ukrainian army.
Signs of environmental pessimism, everything is already in place to contain the Russian troops: abandoned train on the level crossings, mining of road infrastructure, anti-tank obstacles on the roads.
On the armaments side, in the midst of the great hilly plains and industrial cities, face-to-face combat takes place essentially with artillery, “goddess of war” as Stalin consecrated the phrase.
But the balance of power remains extremely disproportionate, according to Iryna Terehovytch, 40-year-old sergeant of the 123rd Ukrainian Brigade, up to “five times superior in terms of equipment”.
“We need tanks, artillery, anti-tank missiles,” the corporal testifies: “In Kreminna we had few NLAW (anti-tank missiles) and some didn’t work.”
Russian forces are also equipped with multiple rocket launchers that sometimes rain deadly rain on residential areas.
And with long-range missiles like the famous Tochka-U, the carcasses of which are scattered in the fields, the Ukrainian defense intercepts only part of the projectiles.
The “closure” of the sky by NATO that Kyiv had hoped for did not happen. And Ukraine has few Su-24 and Su-25 aircraft left to launch over Russian positions.
According to analysts, between 40,000 and 50,000 Ukrainian soldiers would be stationed in Donbass. For its part, Moscow does not communicate about its troop presence.
If they hold their own, the many soldiers of the Ukrainian infantry feel overwhelmed.
“Viking”, a 27-year-old sergeant who also returned from Kreminna, is demoralized. In his position, the men await the order to retreat, exhausted.
“If it was an infantry versus infantry war, we would have a chance. But in this sector it is above all artillery warfare and we don’t have enough of that,” the soldier sums up: “We fired three for 300 shells”.
“We work more precisely, we have learned to conserve our ammunition,” replies the spokeswoman for the 93rd brigade, Iryna Rybakova. “We fire, for example, when their columns try to break through.”
So is the Ukrainian army preparing to leave this contested region since 2014? For Alexander Khramchihine it is “unlikely that the Russian troops will retreat in these regions”.
But the Russian conquest, in his opinion, “won’t be complete before the end of the year.”
On the Ukrainian side, Sergeant Iryna Terehovytch faces a dilemma: “Either we are too heroic and all fall, or we retreat, stay alive and try to regroup our forces.”