Moscow draws from units in poor condition to backfill heavy losses, Ukrainian officials say

By James Marson
March 20, 2023

The Wall Street Journal

Ukraine said Russia was struggling to regain the initiative in the war as Moscow’s offensives were taking little ground and resulting in heavy losses, forcing it to call on a hodgepodge of reserves.

Russia has sought to advance in a handful of directions in the east of Ukraine in recent weeks, but hasn’t seized a significant Ukrainian city since last summer.

Ukraine’s military said that the eastern city of Bakhmut, which Russia is seeking to encircle and capture, remained the focus of Moscow’s attacks on Monday.

Officials said Russian attacks elsewhere were foundering. The intensity of attacks on the town of Vuhledar, to the southwest of the occupied regional capital of Donetsk, has decreased because of the huge losses Russia has suffered, said Col. Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskiy, a Ukrainian military spokesman. That was forcing Russia to backfill severely depleted forces there with reserves from other units that were in poor condition, Ukraine’s military said.

“Defense forces are continuing to contain the enemy in the east,” said Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “Their plans to occupy Bakhmut are failing.”

Recent Ukrainian statements indicate that Russia’s spring offensive might be running out of steam, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D. C.-based think tank, said in its latest assessment of the war.

To be sure, Moscow still holds advantages, including in manpower and artillery. Russia has a population more than three times the size of Ukraine’s. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians volunteered to defend their homeland when Russia invaded but many of them are now dead or injured. Ukrainian officers say more recent draftees have demonstrated more uneven levels of skills and enthusiasm, and some have complained of insufficient training and equipment.

The Kremlin has said that its invasion is on track and that it is pursuing its main immediate goal of capturing the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Russia drafted 300,000 citizens in September and sent tens of thousands of convicts from the Wagner Group paramilitary to try to change the course of its invasion, as Ukraine was taking back territory that Russia had earlier seized.

After plugging holes in its defensive lines, Russia has sought to advance in several directions in the east by dialing up the number and frequency of assaults.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Monday it was launching attacks across Ukraine’s eastern front line. It said that artillery teams had hit Ukrainian targets and that its snipers from Russia’s central military district had taken out Ukrainian artillery spotters, without giving numbers, near Lyman, a town north of Bakhmut.

But the gains have been incremental and Russia has so far failed to take complete control of its main targets, in particular Bakhmut. Ukraine’s military is preparing to launch an offensive of its own in the coming weeks using Western-trained troops and modern equipment provided by the U.S. and its allies.

The U.K. Ministry of Defense said Russia was making creeping gains around the town of Avdiivka to the northwest of Donetsk. Ukraine’s military said Russian forces there were taking heavy losses, and even where they were advancing, they were then being forced to retreat under heavy fire before being able to dig in.

“If 300,000 Russian soldiers have been unable to give Russia a decisive offensive edge in Ukraine, it is highly unlikely that the commitment of additional forces in future mobilization waves will produce a dramatically different outcome this year,” ISW said. “Ukraine is therefore well positioned to regain the initiative and launch counteroffensives in critical sectors of the current frontline.”

Meanwhile, Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a visit meant to showcase the close ties between their two countries.

Elsewhere, Ukrainian officials on Monday mocked Mr. Putin’s weekend visit to the occupied eastern city of Mariupol, calling it a failed effort at staged propaganda after a clip emerged of a resident heckling Russia’s president. The footage, published by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, shows Mr. Putin meeting Mariupol residents outside an apartment building.

“It’s untrue,” a woman’s voice called out. “It’s all for show.”

In the footage, men in Mr. Putin’s entourage glanced up, apparently looking where the shout came from. Mr. Putin continued his conversation with the locals.

Russian officials had hailed the visit by Mr. Putin as an unplanned trip that highlighted rebuilding efforts, his first to territory seized by Russia since its full-scale invasion last year. Russia’s assault on Mariupol destroyed much of the city amid brutal air and artillery bombardments.

“It’s all you need to know about Putin, propaganda, and the thoughts of the majority of Mariupol natives,” said Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to the city’s exiled Ukrainian mayor.

Thomas Grove and Ievgeniia Sivorka contributed to this article.