Kramatorsk, Ukraine – Entering Ukraine from the south, via Kishinev in Moldova, one is first struck by how normal things seem. Odesa, a few hours’ drive from the border, is as charming as it has always been. There are tourists from all over the country. Restaurants and hotels are open.
This apparent normality is partly deceptive. The recent destruction, almost certainly by the Russians, of the Kakhovka dam on June 6 led to the disgorging of vast amounts of wreckage from the Dnipro River onto Odesa’s coastline. Dead farm animals, debris from houses, and even mines are washed up close to the beaches, which have become unusable.
Nevertheless, the near absence of the direct threat of the war in Odesa is significant and is a testament to the achievement of the Ukrainian armed forces in the course of the last year and a half of war. It is worth remembering that the intention of Vladimir Putin’s armies, at the outbreak of the war, was to obliterate the Ukrainian state.
I visited Kyiv in early March 2022, when the Russian army was menacing the Ukrainian capital. Then, the sense of impending catastrophe was tangible and real. In addition to the effort to take Kyiv, cutting Ukraine off from its Black Sea coast was an essential part of this process.
That March, amid shelling by Russian ships on the coast, and airstrikes, there were fears that Moscow would attempt an amphibious landing. The possibility that Russian forces sweeping west from Kherson would simply envelop the city, as they pushed on to the border with Romania, was also frighteningly real.
This danger has now passed. Russian forces faltered around Kyiv. Then, in August 2022, the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson liberated thousands of square kilometers of territory and pushed the lines farther east, enabling the return of the cautious sense of normality now prevailing in Odesa.
Reaching the war, as a result, now requires driving nine or 10 hours east of Odesa, across the endless wheat plains and the industrial landscapes of this most vast of European countries. Now, in the Donbas, the third strategic phase of the Ukraine war is underway.
The first, in February-March 2022, was the failed Russian attempt to take Kyiv and the southern coast, and to terminate Ukrainian independence. The second, in the summer of 2022, was the large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive in the east, in Kharkiv to the north and Kherson to the south.
The third, which began on June 4 this year, is an attempt by the Ukrainians to further reduce Russian territorial holdings in eastern Ukraine, with the ultimate goal of driving Putin’s armies from all of Ukraine.
In early July, I set off eastward from Odesa to the Donbas, with the intention of taking a close look at this third phase of the war. I spent time with infantry, armored and artillery units in the frontline areas, and with various support elements. I concentrated mainly on the Bakhmut front, where the Ukrainians are currently making slow and grinding progress, reversing Russia’s declaration of the full conquest of the town on May 20.
Overall, as has been widely reported, the current counteroffensive has failed to make the rapid progress that Ukrainians and Western observers had hoped for.
So far, there have been no large-scale breaches of the Russian lines by Ukrainian armor, followed by a rush to deepen and widen the gap. Instead, artillery duels are taking place along the 1,200 km. frontline, with small and incremental gains recorded by the Ukrainians.
The sheer scale of destruction wrought by the war in the Donbas is breathtaking. Around the frontline areas, one sees whole towns and villages that have been depopulated, many reduced to rubble.
While traveling through one such area close to Bakhmut, a village recently liberated from the Russians, we came across a Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance unit. Holed up in a half-destroyed house, the unit was operating drones over the Russian lines in order to provide accurate targeting for the M777 howitzers of the Ukrainian artillery in the area. At present, the war in the Donbas is a gunners’ war, to a great extent.
Despite the largely static nature of the fronts, this is a war that the Ukrainians at present appear to be winning. The latest figures suggest that Kyiv’s forces, using modern Western equipment and methods, have destroyed four times as many Russian howitzers as they have themselves lost.
Ukrainians contrast themselves with the Russians
The mood among the reconnaissance team was bullish, with the soldiers keen to point out the contrasting attitudes and practices of the Russians and their own side.
Oleksandr, 40, the commander of the team, noted that “the Russians have been pushed back here, in recent days.” Part of his family is still trapped on the Russian side of the lines, so he didn’t want to be photographed.
“The Russians work with quantity, not quality,” Oleksandr continued. “We’re in shock at their attitude to their own fighters. Because when we enter their trenches, we see that they are full of dead bodies. They don’t even try to take their own dead away.”
Dimitri, one of Oleksandr’s team, gestured toward a pile of discarded Russian uniforms and ammunition boxes that they have stashed against one of the walls of the courtyard. “In the basement of this house, there are microwaves and other stuff that they stole from people,” he said with disgust.
And as for the counteroffensive and its prospects: “We’ll advance because we have no choice. It’s our land. The same as when Israel fought for their independence from the Arabs.”
This combination of views – a kind of astonishment and disgust at the Russian way of war and what it reveals about the nature of the invading regime, and a grim consequent determination that the regime must not prevail – was echoed among other Ukrainian fighters whom we spoke to.
At a training exercise of the 80th Airborne Brigade, a few kilometers from the Bakhmut frontlines, Oleg, a 42-year-old company sergeant major, noted that “Wagner doesn’t respect its own people. They’ll send a group forward. They’ll be killed. Half an hour later, another group will come forward in the same direction, over the bodies, and they’ll also be killed. But on the other hand, they’re a hard enemy. They don’t surrender, they fight to the end.”
He contrasted this “self-sacrificing” aspect of the Wagner PMC fighters with those of the Russian army, who he said were more likely to retreat. And regarding the counteroffensive more generally, he said, “Taking back 100 meters of our homeland is a big distance too, and means a lot for Ukraine.”
Ilya, 25, from Chernivtsi, a tank platoon commander in the 59th Motorized Brigade, has been in the war from the start. The 59th was involved in the first, desperate battles around Kherson in February and March 2022. In his quiet and steady voice, speaking at a position of the brigade near the city of Pokrovsk, he described hair-raising engagements of tank-against-tank in the first days, sometimes at ranges of just a few meters.
As for the current matter, he said: “If the Western allies didn’t help, we’d already have a lack of munitions here; but for the breakthrough, we need more tanks, munitions, aviation. Our people are the priority, and we don’t want to just throw them away.
“For the breakthrough against the Russians, we’d need a 3-1 advantage against the enemy,” he continued, “but to fight inside Donetsk, inside the city, we’d need 7-1. So right now, we’re in the phase of protecting – step by step. But we are slowly moving forward – when the situation allows, with minimized losses, then we move forward.”
This is the current shape of things, five weeks into the Ukrainian counteroffensive of summer 2023. Ukraine’s continued sovereignty, thanks to the determination and early mobilization of a broad mass of the Ukrainian people, is no longer under direct threat. The matter now under consideration is the remaining Russian presence on a considerable stretch of the territory of eastern Ukraine.
Despite the savage practices of the Russian army, its tenacity in defense is notable. Lacking air superiority or the overwhelming superiority in numbers that might allow for a breakthrough against the well-prepared Russian defenses, the Ukrainians are currently slowly and incrementally moving forward – but not, as yet, in a way to seriously threaten the Russian position.
Barring a major shift in this picture in the remaining two months or so that are available before the autumn rains begin, the prospect appears to be for an ongoing, grinding, war of attrition in eastern Ukraine.
For Ilya, Oleksandr, Oleg, and thousands like them – mobilized civilians crewing one of the most combat-hardened forces now in existence anywhere – it seems that it will still be a long fight ahead.