Russia presses counter-counteroffensive in northeast Ukraine

Military vehicles drive past damaged buildings in Kupyansk on Saturday. (Ed Ram for The Washington Post)

KUPYANSK, Ukraine — With the world focused on the war between Israel and Hamas, Russia has launched ferocious attacks in eastern Ukraine, simultaneously ramping up its efforts to encircle the city of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region and pummeling the area around the formerly occupied cities of Kupyansk and Lyman.

Moscow’s reinforced positions and renewed attacks at these strategic points on the eastern front are forcing Ukraine to defend swaths of territory that were occupied for months after Russia’s invasion in February 2022 and then liberated roughly a year ago.

Some of the most intense fighting is taking place near Kupyansk, a city located on the Oskil River, just 25 miles from the border with Russia. Ukrainian commanders and officials stationed along the eastern front said in interviews that Russia had noticeably bolstered its forces in recent weeks by creating new, fresh brigades — including elite forces and “Storm Z” units made up of prisoner battalions.

The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, said the situation had “worsened significantly” and that Russia was aiming to encircle Kupyansk and to reach the river, which cuts through the city.

In the center of Kupyansk on Saturday, the steady thud of artillery fire reverberated across the front line, six miles to the northeast.

The city and the surrounding area have been under near constant bombardment since Ukrainian troops recaptured Kupyansk during a lightning counteroffensive in September 2022.

Since then there have been only marginal shifts in territorial control. In August, Ukraine ordered a major evacuation. Other than the nearby bombing, the city is now eerily quiet; its main street and administration building in ruins.

Zhenia, a 28-year-old soldier fighting in Synkivka, a village northeast of Kupyansk, described the battles there in recent days as “crazy” and said that the Russians were attacking Ukrainian positions with a massive amount of ammunition.

“They definitely have brought more tanks here, their artillery is shooting almost continuously,” said Zhenia, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used because of security concerns.

“They are fighting just like during World War II,” he said as he paused to smoke a cigarette while shopping for supplies at a local market. “They are sending in their men like pieces of meat, again and again.”

Zhenia said that while Ukrainian forces were managing to hold the line, it appeared the Russians had learned from past mistakes, studying and using the local terrain, and gradually improving their tactics.

“There are places where we struggle to fight them and they break through,” he said. “They send so many forces here that it is difficult to even contain them. They are shooting with everything they’ve got. They approach with their tanks from multiple directions, then fly their helicopters overhead.”

Kupyansk is a city on edge. Residents who chose to remain in the city fear reoccupation. Suspicion of collaborators and those still harboring pro-Russian sentiments also runs high.

Ukrainian military intelligence and soldiers from units fighting in the area do not visibly display their rank while in Kupyansk, and local administrators live outside of the city center for safety reasons. A billboard at the entrance to Kupyansk urges people to call a number to report information about “traitors of Ukraine.”

Anna, 63, who lives in the nearby village of Petropavlivka, was selling vegetables at the Saturday market. Sometimes, she said, when a soldier stops to buy her produce, she will say, “boys, please hold the Russians off, don’t let them in again.”

Although she cracked jokes about giving the Russians a hard time during occupation and about the “snitches” next door, Anna was visibly nervous.

“I don’t want to run away from here, I’m not leaving my home,” Anna said. “Of course, we are afraid it will be reoccupied … My son who is fighting told me that as many as three Russian armies will try to advance on the eastern side of Kupyansk.”

In an intelligence memo posted to X, formerly Twitter, the British Ministry of Defense said that Moscow had built up combat capacity in the Kupyansk-Lyman direction in recent months, but so far had achieved very limited gains.

“Ukrainian forces retain a significant defensive presence on this axis and it is highly unlikely Russian Ground Forces will achieve a major operational breakthrough,” the memo stated, adding that Russia wanted to advance to the Oskil River and create a buffer zone around Ukraine’s Luhansk region, which is largely occupied.

Earlier this month, Moscow also began a new, significant assault on Avdiivka, which lies three miles north of the city of Donetsk in occupied eastern Ukraine.

Russia mounts major attack on key city in eastern Ukraine

Avdiivka has been a target ever since Russia began fomenting war in the eastern Donbas region in 2014. As a result, it is one of the most well-fortified locations on the front. Over the past decade, Russian forces have repeatedly tried to encircle the city, most notably in a fierce battle in 2017.

In an interview, the head of the Avdiivka city military administration, Vitalii Barabash, described the new assault as “unprecedented” with Russia deploying greater numbers of personnel and equipment than had previously been seen in a decade of fighting.

“The maximum number of units of equipment used in 2014, 2015, even in 2017, when they tried to move in to Avdiivka, was about 20-30 units,” Barabash said. “Even at the beginning of the full-scale war, if I’m not mistaken, no more than 30-35 units were used. But on the 10th of October, they sent in around 100 units, and about 2,000 personnel. This was just the first day.”

Since then, Russia bombarded the city and its outskirts relentlessly with aviation and artillery, before a brief two-day lull to regroup. Attacks restarted on Oct. 19.

“Since the beginning of this year, there has been no such attack in any direction on the front line,” Barabash said.

If Russia captures Avdiivka, because of its strategic location, a large part of the front stretching about 30 miles from Toretsk to Mariinka, could collapse, Barabash said.

According to Ukrainian military intelligence, he said, Russian forces are under pressure from Moscow to seize all of Donetsk region by year’s end — an ambitious, and probably unrealistic, goal.

Pro-war Russian military bloggers acknowledge that both sides face immense challenges in the battle for Avdiivka.

“Fighting in Avdiivka and the Donetsk direction doesn’t just burn, it glows,” one prominent blog, WarGonzo, posted on Telegram. “Over the past week, Russian forces have had some successes but risks have also emerged.”

“Their artillery on the entire Donetsk front is very powerful,” the post read. “It creates great difficulties for the movement of Russian armored vehicles and infantry.”

Another prominent Russian war blogger, Rybar, wrote that the large numbers of troops in the area, dug into fortified positions, made it difficult to wage “a maneuverable war” and was often resulting in “head-on” assaults.

“The consequence of all of this is a positional deadlock,” Rybar wrote in an analysis published Sunday.

But elsewhere on the front, Ukraine is actively on the offensive, inching forward through smaller, lightning infantry attacks, and painstakingly taking one Russian position at a time.

These surprise attacks, commanders said, are designed to pressure the Russians, distract them, and force them to redeploy, potentially creating weaker points elsewhere on the front that Ukraine can break through.

At a command post on the border of the Kharkiv and Luhansk regions, less than a mile from the front line, an assault commander of the 68th brigade, who goes by the call sign Dolphin, showed a drone live shot of a newly captured position. “Here you see a dead Russian soldier, and here — and also here,” Dolphin said.

Russia was not advancing near Dolphin’s position but the price of the attacks is high for each side, and commanders are under severe pressure.

“It has been much harder than we thought,” said Dolphin’s superior, Col. Oleksii Shum, who is commander of the 68th Brigade. “Although I am satisfied with the result, I’m really frustrated by the past week, emotionally speaking.”

“We lost some soldiers just because of accidents, not so much because of fighting,” Shum said. “Our losses are more than previously,” he said, adding: “Conducting assault operations is not something that we do that often, because it’s so exhausting.”

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