World

Theaters of War That Make Up the Fighting in Ukraine

Along the southern reaches of the Dnipro River, Ukrainian forces are staging amphibious assaults on Russian positions across the river from around the city of Kherson, forcing Russia to deploy already-stretched units to prevent Ukraine from gaining a foothold on the eastern bank.

Nearly 1,000 miles to the north, it’s the Russians who are on the offensive and forming what the Ukrainian military called a “striking fist,” with tens of thousands of soldiers amassed near the towns of Kupiansk and Kreminna. That has prompted Ukraine to dispatch some of its most seasoned airborne assault units to retake positions lost earlier this summer.

Along a front line that cuts a jagged path roughly the same distance as New York to Miami, the fighting rarely relents.

And with Ukrainian forces pressing ahead along multiple lines of attack — Kyiv’s most ambitious and high-stakes offensive campaign in nearly a year — what happens in one sector invariably affects the others.

“A person who simply reads the news does not see it, does not feel it,” Hanna Maliar, a deputy Ukrainian defense minister, said this week. It can seem that everything is taking a long time, “but believe me, it doesn’t seem that way to people who are fighting,” she said.

“In fact, this is a very dynamic, active process,’’ she said.

To better understand how the fight is playing out along the breadth of the front, it is useful to look at some of the major theaters where Russia and Ukraine have concentrated their troops. Moving geographically from the northeast to the south, this is a snapshot of the fighting as summer draws to a close.

Forest Fighting in the Northeast

After Ukraine drove Russian forces from nearly all of the Kharkiv region last fall, its offensive was finally halted in the pine forests that dominate the landscape in the region.

This sector stretches some 60 miles through towns like Kupiansk and Kreminna, and has been the scene of seesaw battles for months. One army moves a mile or two forward, only to be driven back again.

That’s a common sequence in this war; what’s different in the Northeast, the Ukrainians acknowledge, is that it is one of the very few places where Moscow’s forces are engaged in sustained offensive operations, and making small, tactical gains.

So far the Russians have failed to break the Ukrainian lines, according to military analysts and soldiers interviewed over the summer. Still, there is no indication that Russian pressure will ease. Ukraine warned last week that Moscow had withdrawn ground forces from Belarus to join offensive operations in the area.

Members of a Ukrainian assault unit take cover while moving toward a frontline position on the “Zero Line” in eastern Ukraine, in July.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

A member of a Ukrainian assault unit takes cover from drones and shelling at a position at the “Zero Line” 300 yards from Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, in July.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Oleh Matviychuk, a 49-year-old battalion commander, said the Russians have two main goals: driving the Ukrainian across Oskil River, a natural defensive barrier that has played a key role in fighting, and forcing Ukraine to deploy troops here so they cannot be used elsewhere.

Given the region’s proximity to the Russian border, the Russians do not face the same logistical challenges here that they do elsewhere.

The area has long been a staging ground for Russia’s campaign in the east and the Kremlin has amassed some 100,000 troops and more than 500 battle tanks in the area, according to Ukrainian officials. But it is not clear whether they will be dedicated to this sector or deployed elsewhere.

Bakhmut and the Donbas

Russia claimed “victory” over the smoldering rubble of Bakhmut in May after a yearlong campaign that featured some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. The city was razed, but the battle never stopped.

Almost immediately, Ukrainian forces were fighting to drive the Russians from areas to the north and south of Bakhmut. The gains can appear small — a few hundred meters in a given clash — but the Ukrainians have continued to advance, slowly but steadily.

Ukrainian troops of the 80th Air Assault Brigade prepare for an evening assault against Russian forces near Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, last month.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Troops from the 80th Air Assault Brigade fire a “Grad” multiple rocket launcher at Russian targets in the direction of Bakhmut, last month.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

On a recent visit to Ukrainian positions around the city, soldiers said they know they are not the focus of the counteroffensive, with much of the best weaponry and personnel being deployed in the south. But they aid the war effort by forcing the Russians to devote resources to the defense of Bakhmut.

Ms. Maliar said on Monday that Ukraine had reclaimed about 49 square kilometers around the city.

The fighting has been brutal, with attacks and counterattacks by both sides. For months Ukraine has gradually progressed south of the city, in and around the village of Klischivka. And it has launched a series of coordinated attacks this week, according to military officials and combat footage geolocated by military analysts.

At the same time, battles rarely cease around the villages of Avdiivka and Marinka to the south of Bakhmut, with Ukraine now hoping to exploit any gaps in the defense that emerge as Russian forces are increasingly stretched.

Vuhledar: Where Two Fronts Converge

While Bakhmut has drawn more attention for the ferocity of the battles there, the coal mining town of Vuhledar has been the site of fierce, destructive fighting. It is where the Eastern and Southern fronts converge, only a few miles from vital Russian logistical lines that supply Russian troops in southern Ukraine, making it a critical corner of the war.

The Russians have been shelling Vuhledar for months. Drone footage shot over blasted-out ruins by The New York Times highlights the intensity of the fighting.

Vuhledar, Ukraine, in June.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
In Vuhledar in June.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Ukrainian soldiers in this area say their primary mission is to hold onto key positions and, if the opportunity presents itself, take advantage of stretched Russian forces to gain better positions to strike a vital Russian logistical hub 17 miles to the southeast, in Volnovakha.

The Southern Counteroffensive

After a faltering start marked by heavy losses, Ukraine has regrouped and adjusted its tactics. Its forces have broken through what they consider to be the first line of Russian defenses along two lines of attack heading south.

One of those thrusts has retaken the village of Robotyne; though tiny, it represented the most important advance of the counteroffensive to date. Ukraine had pushed through Russia’s first major layer of defenses and set up a base for launching further advances to the south.

Now Ukrainian forces are widening the breach and putting increasing pressure on a secondary line of Russian defenses around the village of Verbove, to the southeast.

A member of the Ares battalion from the 129th territorial defense brigade gazes out a kindergarten window in the Donetsk region, last month.Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times
A member of the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade moves to a position on the frontline in Zaporizhzhia, last month.Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Oleksandr Shtupun, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military forces there, said the next series of Russian defensive positions in the area were somewhat less dense than the initial layer, giving Ukraine “the opportunity to maneuver equipment and troops.”

He said Russia was employing airborne assault units for defensive purposes, which is not their traditional use. “That’s because the Russians see them as elite forces,” he said, “so if they are throwing their so-called elite in defensive battles, then something is going wrong for them.”

The second route southward for Ukrainian forces is farther east, along a winding rural road that cuts a path through the Mokri Yori River valley.

The road leads to the occupied port city Mariupol, but it is unclear what the Ukrainian goal is. Some analysts have said it could be the city of Berdiansk, south and west of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. Indeed, if Ukraine is able to advance, it could turn its forces that way, or even make a hard turn west to try to join the other thrust and encircle Russian forces.

Ukrainian marines conduct training exercises in the region of Vuhledar, last month.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Ukrainian marines during training exercises near Vuhledar last month.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

When Ukrainian forces reclaimed the tiny village of Urozhaine in mid-August, they broke through what they consider the first Russian defense line in this direction. The next major village on the map is Staromlynivka and the Ukrainians have been pounding Russian positions there with artillery for more than a week.

Ukrainian soldiers say that if they can break through defenses on the road ahead and drive Russians from the village, the minefields will become less dense and they will then have more options for where to strike next.

The marines fighting in the valley say they need to advance another 20 kilometers — and hold that land — to begin putting Russian supply lines along the coast in daily peril.

At Kherson, the Battle for the River Delta

After Ukraine drove Russian forces out of the western Kherson region in the fall, the Dnipro became the new front line.

The fighting was then largely defined by cross-river shelling and skirmishes on the islands that dot the sprawling estuary south of Kherson. Even if Ukraine does not plan to mount a large-scale amphibious assault, it is forcing Russia to expend resources and devote soldiers to defend the area.

The Antonivsky bridge across the Dnipro River, destroyed by retreating Russian forces, in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, in November.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
Oksana Pavlenko, 55, stands in front of the remains of her destroyed home, which was on the front lines in Posad Pokrovske village, in the Kherson region, last month.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

The fighting here remains murky and its significance hard to assess, given the limited information made public by either side. There is no indication Ukraine is poised to break through entrenched Russian positions between Kherson and the Crimean peninsula.

The British military intelligence agency said that the Ukrainians have managed to hold a small bridgehead across the river since early June.

The most significant fighting in recent weeks has taken place around the village of Kozachi Laheri, northeast of Kherson, where Western military analysts say Ukraine staged a successful raid before pulling back again.

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