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Ukraine soldiers slowly retreat under relentless fire

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — It all starts with a whistle, said Vladislav Goncharenko, a sergeant in the Ukrainian army, describing the relentless Russian bombardment.

“You lie down in a trench,” he said as he waited in an ambulance packed with other wounded soldiers.

“There are very strong explosions. You want to go deeper into the ground. And you have shrapnel whistling all over you, like flies.”

A wounded Ukrainian soldier is transferred from the front near Izium in eastern Ukraine to a hospital in Kramatorsk on Wednesday. Photo Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

The soldiers, he said, “just want it to stop.”

Although much of the world’s focus on the war has been on Russia’s flawed and disorganized campaign, Ukraine is also struggling.

Ukraine’s military has suffered heavy losses, shown signs of disorder, and has, step by step, withdrawn from long-held positions in Donbas, the eastern region that is now the epicenter of the war.

The momentum that Ukraine generated after pushing back Russian forces from kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv, the second-largest city, has given way in the east to weeks of give-and-take in villages, heavy bombardment and a stream of Ukrainian attacks. dead and wounded from the battlefields.

Ukrainian troops are now facing a Russian force that has changed the strategy from the hasty and reckless advances of the first weeks of the war to a slow and crushing march enabled by massive artillery bombardment.

A Ukrainian armored column near the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday.  Photo Finbarr O'Reilly for The New York Times

A Ukrainian armored column near the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday. Photo Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

On Wednesday, Russian forces advanced in street fighting in the ruined city of Sievierodonetsk, a key target of their offensive.

A local official said Wednesday that Russian forces controlled around the 70% of the city, where only about 12,000 residents remain out of a pre-war population of 100,000 after weeks of heavy bombardment.

Ukrainian soldiers are at risk of being surrounded.

With bridges over the Seversky Donets River destroyed or under fire, resupply has become tenuous.

A doctor sits on a stretcher at a hospital in Kramatorsk on Wednesday.  Photo Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

A doctor sits on a stretcher at a hospital in Kramatorsk on Wednesday. Photo Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Ukrainian officials have been candid about the military’s woes, arguing that faster deliveries of Western weaponry will solve them.

Every day in the current intense fighting, the president said Volodymyr Zelensky in an interview with Newsmax this week, between 60 and 100 Ukrainian soldiers die and another 500 soldiers are wounded in combat.

In his late-night speech, Zelenskyy acknowledged that the battle for control of the Donbas region was “very difficult,” but stressed that his troops were succeeding in the south, near Kherson and around Zaporizhzhia, and around Kharkiv in the south. northeast.

“The front-line situation needs to be comprehensively assessed,” he said.

“Not for one area, where there is the most difficult situation and that attracts the most attention, but for the entire front line.”

To fill the gaps on the front line, Ukraine has resorted to deploying volunteers minimally trained of the Territorial Defense Force, which was quickly mobilized when the war began.

Hints of moral lapses have emerged.

One unit recorded a video protesting the dire conditions.

In interviews, soldiers said their artillery guns sometimes go silent for lack of ammunition.

“Those people who said that the war would end very soon, that we have already won, that we will celebrate in April, said something dangerous,” Ukraine’s national security adviser Oleksiy Danilov told Ukrainian media this week.

In the messy back-and-forth fighting on the rolling plains of the east, Ukrainian forces are buoyed by the promise that Western weapons they will arrive soon.

On Tuesday, the president Joe Biden announced plans to equip Ukraine with multiple rocket launch systems, a powerful and long-range artillery weapon.

US and Ukrainian officials have said the systems are not intended to attack targets inside Russia.

On Wednesday, the chancellor Olaf Scholz Germany promised to send a sophisticated air defense system and tracking radar capable of locating Russian artillery.

Scholz had faced criticism from Ukraine and some German lawmakers that I hadn’t done enough to support the Ukrainian army.

He did not announce a timetable for the new shipments.

With the arrival of new weapons systems at best, it is unclear if they will land in Ukraine in time to repel the Russians’ slow advance.

Last week, Ukraine was forced to leave positions which he had defended during an eight-year war with Russian-backed separatists near the city of Svitlodarsk.

Throughout the war, the state of the Ukrainian military has been difficult to assess from publicly available sources.

When the war started, the Ukrainian army had about 30,000 soldiers deployed in the Donbas region, but neither the government nor the army provided a current figure.

The Ukrainian government has largely concealed casualty figures, and Western governments have not offered their own assessments of the army’s difficulties, as they have in describing Russian setbacks.

The last update on Ukrainian casualties came on April 16, when Zelensky said fewer than 3,000 soldiersbut his comments on declines last week suggest the figure is much higher now.

Ukraine is also hampered by the deterioration and depletion of its Soviet-heritage artillery, said Mykhailo Zhirokhov, author of a book on Ukrainian artillery.

Spent cannons fire less accurately.

Charges are running low.

Western replacements are arriving, but slowly.

The morale of volunteer fighters is also proving to be a challenge, at least in some units.

Many of those who signed up for the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Force in the first days of the war believed that their task would be limited to defend their places of origin.

There were professors, computer programmers, taxi drivers, and others, most with no battlefield experience.

They are now deployed in fierce combat in the east, an indication of Ukraine’s growing demand for front-line fighters.

Improvisation

A law passed on May 3, after many volunteers had already enlisted, allowed their deployment to fight outside their home regions.

Some are trained only after arriving at the front to fire heavy machine guns, anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers, because the weapons are only available there, Serhiy Sabko, chief of the General Staff of the Territorial Defense Force, told Ukrainian media last month. past.

“We are forced tor additional workoutsnear the front, he said.

Meanwhile, the strain on military families is showing.

In Lviv, a western city that has avoided serious shelling, wives and mothers of men from the 103rd Territorial Defense Brigade have protested, terrified by the deployment of their husbands and sons to combat in the east.

To allay concerns, one commander, Vitaliy Kupriy, met with some 200 women in a concert hall, but the conversation turned to screaming and cryinglocal media reported.

In interviews in ambulances as they were being evacuated from the front lines, about a dozen wounded Ukrainian soldiers said the artillery was the cause of most of the casualties.

They echoed calls by Ukrainian officials for the West to transfer more artillery long range to counter Russian bombardment.

“It is a weapon that I, as a rifleman, cannot fight,” Goncharenko said of the Russian artillery.

He was wounded in a shelling on the northern edge of the front around Sievierodonetsk that brought down a tree on the trench in which he was sheltering.

He suffered a concussion that left him dizzy, vomiting, and unable to fight.

The Russians mix artillery bombardment with probing maneuvers by infantry or armored vehicles, identifying new targets by closing in on Ukrainian lines and firing.

The maneuver is called “reconnaissance until contact”.

The Ukrainians open fire on the investigating Russians, causing casualties.

“We collect their dead,” Goncharenko said.

But then, having determined the Ukrainian positions, he said, the Russians “fall back and fire artillery.”

Russia has also paid high costs.

On Tuesday, US officials estimated that the overall combat strength of the Russian military had been reduced by about 20%.

By the end of March, NATO estimated that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers had been killed.

Still, Russia’s artillery has devastated towns and cities before the advance and caused some 80% of the population to flee from Ukrainian-controlled areas in the Donbas.

Russian soldiers finish taking ruins.

“The only way they will occupy Donbas is by reducing it to rubble,” said Maria Zolkina, a political analyst.

“If they capture Donbas, they will be left without cities” or people.

Some military analysts don’t see a clear end for now, with Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, on Wednesday predicting “many months of conflict” ahead.

Russia is unlikely to soon capture the claimed borders of two breakaway states whose independence it recognized in February.

And Ukraine seems to be far from ready for a counterattack that turns the tide.

“This is a war where territory is going to change hands, there is no logical end point to the conflict and there is no stalemate,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia said.

“This is going to be a longer war.”

Sergeant Bohdan Yermak, whose lungs were damaged by the shock wave when a tank shell exploded nearby, said Ukrainian commanders sometimes call for strikes, but artillery batteries are unable to carry out orders due to lack of ammunition.

“They say they are saving ammunition for a rainy day,” he said.

Long-range weapons and ammunition and related military aid packages from US allies and Europe will help, he said, drawing on his experience on the front lines.

For now, the sergeant said. Mykola Pokotila, who was wounded in a battle north of the city of Sloviansk, Ukrainian soldiers in the east are under siege and are enduring heavy artillery shelling.

“I’ve never seen hell like this.”

Maria Varenikova and Michael Levenson contributed reporting.

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