In the grinding battle for eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk Province,
Russia has intensified attacks on the next line of cities that stand in their sights — Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut, among others.
On the ground, the battle is for villages on the approaches to the main cities. There, Russia has made little progress, taking only one village south of Bakhmut in two weeks of fighting the length of the front line, which stretches for hundreds of miles.
Serhiy Haidai, the leader of the Ukrainian civil-military administration of neighboring Luhansk Province, which is now in Russian hands, confirmed that the Russians had suffered several reverses on the battlefield in the last two weeks but said the fighting did not represent a tipping point in Ukraine’s favor.
“I do not think this is the moment,” he said. “We have Western artillery, and thank you for that, but it is not yet enough to turn the progress of events.”
Privately, Ukrainian officers serving in eastern Ukraine said they thought the West was intentionally supplying only enough assistance and matériel to slow the Russian offensive and not to defeat it.
Nevertheless, despite punishing battles and heavy casualties defending the last cities of Luhansk Province through May and June, Ukrainian troops said they were holding their new positions and not ready to give up.
A unit that fought for 18 days in the city of Sievierodonetsk, which fell to the Russians near the end of June, was resting in a camp in the woods some miles back from the front line, recuperating since they were ordered to pull out of the city.
They were in rough shape when they came out, a press officer with the unit said. “They did not want to pull out, and the fighting was also tough,” he said. “They are doing better now.”
The men themselves seemed to have accepted their lot.
“We were ready to fight till the end,” said their commander, Serhii, 52, who, like most members of the Ukrainian military, asked to be identified by only his code name in accord with military protocol. “But I did not feel bad leaving. It was better to save lives.”
Kum, 47, deputy commander of a National Guard unit, who has spent months fighting in eastern Ukraine, said his battalion had taken losses but seen no desertions.
“We are military,” he said. “If we are told to hold something, we will hold it.” But he grimaced when asked if Ukraine could hold the rest of Donetsk Province in the face of a full-scale Russian offensive. His face seemed to say no.
On the rolling hills in the north of the province, the wheat fields have burned in wide stretches and smoke drifted over the woodland where Russian bombs had struck on a morning last week.
Almost everyone in a volunteer unit guarding the area had suffered a concussion in recent weeks, said one soldier, Oksana, 27.
The unit successfully blocked a Russian attack at the end of June, said her husband, Stanislav, 35, who was commander of a forward defensive position.
“Early morning I had 33 people. By early evening I had lost 19,” he said. “It was very hard — they were firing on our positions nonstop for six hours.”
They lost a good friend in the battle, Stanislav said. And some of their volunteers had quit, or simply not returned from a rest period, Oksana added. They had a five-week trial period for that purpose, which was good, she said. “They come here and test themselves.”
There are signs that Ukrainian forces are depleted and increasingly resigned to an unequal fight.
Samson, a commander who was hunkered down near burning wheat fields, is a recent recruit. A German-language teacher in civilian life, Samson enlisted in April.
“They fire more often than us because they have more ammunition,” Samson said of the Russians. “They have large stocks from the Soviet Union. They were more prepared for war than we are.”
Mark Landler contributed reporting from London and Kamila Hrabchuk from the Donetsk region.