Latest news on the Russian-Ukrainian war: live updates
In the first phase of its war to seize Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, Moscow’s strategy was to encircle defenders in urban centers, pound them with artillery, and leave them the dire choice of withdraw or continue to fight, cut off reinforcements and a way to escape.
The strategy allowed Russian forces to claim Luhansk, the northernmost of the two Donbass provinces. In the new phase of the war, aimed at consolidating power and gaining more territory in the other province, Donetsk, President Vladimir V. Putin’s forces have already begun to repeat the pattern. This time, however, making it work might prove more difficult.
Russian forces have been shelling Donetsk sporadically for weeks. Shellfire has killed seven civilians in the past 24 hours in Donetsk, according to regional military governor Pavlo Kyrylenko.
Russian-backed separatists established breakaway republics in Lugansk and Donetsk in 2014 and have been fighting Ukrainian troops ever since. The Battle of Luhansk began in earnest in April and came to a head this week when the city of Lysychansk fell.
Military experts said Ukrainian forces aggressively defended territory in Luhansk, made smart tactical decisions and even performed the difficult maneuver of retreating from Lysychansk under fire to preserve the strength of their force and avoid encirclement. In the end, however, they could not withstand Russia’s superior firepower.
“Artillery is one of the most important components of Russian operations,” said a report this week from the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based research institute, “and in terms of lethal capabilities it has become Russia’s mission-critical force multiplier.”
Ukrainian authorities presented the fighting in similar terms. “Yes, they have an order of magnitude more forces and means,” Luhansk military governor Serhiy Haidai said Wednesday, referring to the Russian artillery advantage. But he argued that the situation was changing.
Western countries have increased the flow of weapons to Ukraine, including long-range missiles capable of hitting Russian positions and infrastructure. The most advanced of these is the US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, the first of which have just begun to be deployed.
“More long-range weapons will appear,” Haidai said, adding that “the Ukrainian army is better prepared and motivated” than its enemy.
At the start of the war, Mr Putin’s forces – baffled by the tenacity of Ukraine’s defense of its sovereign territory – failed to capture the capital, Kyiv. Moscow’s supply lines became too extensive and his forces could not effectively concentrate their artillery power. Military experts said Russia learned from those mistakes and applied the lessons to Lugansk, where proximity to its own border helped shorten supply lines.
Today, in Donetsk province, a mostly flat region of heavy industry and agriculture, Russia has several potential lines of attack. Russian forces are slowly advancing towards the cities of Sloviansk, Bakhmut and Siversk from those they control, including the city of Donetsk in the southern Donbass, Izium in the north and Luhansk province itself. Russia may also bring in forces from the southern port city of Mariupol, which fell to Moscow in May.
A British intelligence report said Wednesday that over the past week Russian forces had probably advanced up to five more kilometers, or about three miles, down the main Izium road “in the face of extremely determined Ukrainian resistance.” He said the Russian forces were now about 16 kilometers, or 10 miles, north of Sloviansk.
The ultimate Russian goal in Donbass is to seize Kramatorsk, the site of Ukraine’s regional administration since 2014, when separatists seized territory in the region and established the two self-declared republics backed by Moscow. In the eight years of conflict that followed, Ukrainian forces built elaborate defensive positions designed to make Russian forces pay dearly for any further attempts to seize territory.