Recognition…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
While Russia is relying on overwhelming destructive force to advance a mile or two a day in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian soldiers fighting some 400 miles to the south have worked tirelessly to smash Russian front line positions across a vast expanse of steppes and swamps .
Fighting is fierce on both fronts and how the two campaigns are unfolding is crucial to understanding where the war stands as concerns grow that a protracted conflict will bring new economic costs to Ukraine’s allies.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said last week he thought he would wait and see the West. While the Russian leader rarely acknowledges Russian casualties or defeats, military analysts said the blows to his army have raised questions about its ability to sustain broad offensive operations after its campaign to capture Luhansk province ends.
Russia has deployed the bulk of its forces to capture Lysychansk, the last urban center in Luhansk still controlled by the Ukrainian government, and it could fall any day.
Russia has sent thousands of additional troops east in recent weeks to bolster its offensive into neighboring Donetsk province, where it is likely to try again to overwhelm heavily fortified Ukrainian positions with its large arsenal of artillery, missiles and air power, too if this is the case ground forces will be reduced.
How shrunk each army is after more than four months of war is an open question. Kyiv publishes only rough estimates of its losses, and Moscow says practically nothing.
British defense chief Ben Wallace said last week that 25,000 Russian soldiers had been killed since the war began. The number, which has not been independently confirmed, is the highest estimate by a senior Western official. The Ukrainian government has admitted that it has suffered enormous casualties, with hundreds of casualties every day.
Even if Russia can push deeper into Donetsk, its military is struggling to sustain an advance along multiple lines of attack in different parts of a country roughly the size of Texas.
The Russian defeat on Thursday at Snake Island in the Black Sea, where their troops were forced to retreat under sustained Ukrainian bombardment, underscored how dependent the Russians are on their superiority in heavy weapons.
It was expected that Russian withdrawal from the island would undermine Moscow’s control of vital grain shipping routes from Odessa. And when at least 21 people died in Russian rocket attacks on an apartment building and a recreation center near Odessa on Friday, Ukrainians saw it as an act of revenge.
“This was an act of revenge for the successful liberation of Snake Island,” Yevhen Yenin, the first deputy interior minister, said in an interview. He scoffed at Russian claims that leaving the island was a “goodwill” gesture.
Recognition…Maxar Technologies/About Reuters
With its few and far between armed forces, Russia has been trying for months to bolster its defenses in the south, where Ukraine has recaptured parts of the Kherson region west of the Dnieper River that Russia captured earlier in the war.
The Ukrainian military said the Russians were driven out of peripheral defensive positions in several places and that Ukrainian soldiers are operating within 20 miles of the city of Kherson. A senior US Defense Department official said last week that the Ukrainians were not only retaking villages, but also showing an ability to hold the reclaimed ground.
But military analysts warn that despite Ukrainian gains in the south, they are unlikely to be able to launch a broad offensive and soon advance on the city of Kherson, the only provincial capital to fall to the Russians.
Currently, Ukrainian forces are counterattacking north and south of the city. At the same time, insurgents in Kherson have stepped up a campaign to assassinate Russian proxy leaders and support the Ukrainian military through sabotage operations and assisting in direct shelling of Russian targets.
On Thursday, the Southern Command of Ukraine’s military said its forces had launched missile and artillery strikes on 150 targets, killing more than 40 Russian soldiers and destroying a variety of Russian artillery and armor. The claims could not be independently corroborated, but data from NASA satellites that track fires identified activity on the southern front.
Markus Santora and