Exhausted troops are tired of defending against the Russians without gaining ground. But which side will go first with a big push?
March 11, 2023
The Sunday Times
They called it the Cursed Forest. For six months Ukraine’s 131st Battalion fought off Russian attacks night and day deep in a pine forest on the eastern front. “It was terrifying,” said Yuliia Kornieieva, 22, a former air hostess. “Attacks come all the time, several times a day, and so many mortars — but morale was high as we are fighting for our country.” Serhiy Sheludchenko, 57, her company commander, said: “We hated that forest because we lost so many comrades.” Sheludchenko, a top martial arts coach, volunteered, like Kornieieva, on February 24 last year, the day Russia invaded. “They threw everything at us,” he said. “Wave after wave of artillery then sending their soldiers. But we didn’t give up a single metre.”
The focus in the east has been on the human cost of the long, grinding battle for the symbolically important town of Bakhmut, where Russian forces have recently made small gains, according to an assessment by the Ministry of Defence in London. Yet intense fighting has also been under way an hour further north in a forest around Torske where Ukrainian forces, including the 131st, have prevented the Russians from penetrating further west after they captured the town of Kreminna last April.
The men and women of the 131st are back from the front line for their first break since September, as both sides in the war gird themselves for expected spring offensives that could shape the rest of the conflict.
However, their rotation from the fighting highlights a problem for Ukraine’s military planners juggling overstretched resources. The 131st held their positions for half a year but within a week of their departure, their replacements have already ceded ground. “While we were there the front line never really moved,” Sheludchenko said. “Troops like us, there from the start, are experienced, battle-hardened and know the territory but we need rotations. As soon as we moved out and were replaced by fresh ones, they lost ground. “We will get it back when we return,” he insisted. At their makeshift base in woods outside Kyiv, many of the battalion’s fighters look dazed. One soldier is in tears.
Sheludchenko is looking forward to going back to the front and taking the fight to the Russians. “We’re tired of just defending,” he said. “We want to punish them under our artillery and push them back.”
For that they need help. “We’re dreaming about new equipment,” added Sheludchenko, whose call sign is Uncle Sam. “Western kit is so much more effective than our old Soviet kit but we need more. We need tanks — the Russians had tanks but we didn’t have any. We need Javelins, anti-tank missiles, more powerful mortars, drones and night vision.”
Some of that is on the way: after months of equivocating followed by logistical delays, Nato weaponry and equipment has started pouring into Ukraine. “It’s like D-Day in terms of kit flooding in,” said a western defence official. “It’s immense.”
Polish and Canadian tanks have arrived. About 100 more western tanks, including German Leopards and 14 British Challenger 2 tanks, will be delivered shortly. Also coming are armoured carriers and bridge-laying vehicles, and far more munitions and rockets.
The 31 M1 Abrams tanks that the US has promised will not arrive till later in the year but plenty of other American kit will be in Ukraine much sooner. Of all the US military aid pledged since the start of the war, analysts say that 40 per cent of it — worth more than £5 billion — was agreed in the past three months.
In January an American-led meeting of defence ministers at the US airbase of Ramstein in Germany crystallised a fresh sense of urgency among Ukraine’s allies, who agree a drawn-out attritional conflict is only in President Putin’s interests.
The West is providing more than just kit. Thousands of Ukrainian recruits have recently been sent for intensive five-week training courses in the US, France, Germany and the UK. Trainers from Australia and New Zealand have flown in to help and the numbers are such that the British Army has run out of training sites.
The Ukrainians are being taught to adapt from the Soviet equipment they are used to to the western equipment they will receive (“like the difference between someone fighting with a fine épée and with an axe”, one western diplomat said). They are also learning a new culture of how to fight — starting with how to achieve more with the weaponry that they already have, by targeting weapons more precisely.
The goal is to become an offensive force that can smash through Russian lines. Enemy troops hold 18 per cent of Ukrainian territory. “We need to move from just firing to fire and manoeuvre,” the defence official said.
The Russians, however, are also presumed to be planning a big push. “We all understand for war to be won, we need to do more than defending ourselves, we need to go on the offensive,” said General Viktor Muzhenko, Ukraine’s army chief from 2014 to 2019, who returned as a military adviser in the first two months of the invasion and is a senior fellow at the army’s research unit. “But the question is: are the Russian army planning an offensive, are they planning to mobilise more people and launch a new operation? I think they will. So the question is who will do it first?”
Few outsiders know the Russian military better than Muzhenko, who trained in the Soviet army and served in it from 1979 to 1991 when Ukraine became independent. He took over as head of the armed forces in 2014 just after the Russian annexation of Crimea and was soon fighting against them and their proxies in the eastern Donbas.
Convinced that the Kremlin would at some point launch a full-scale invasion, in 2017 he ordered strategic training in which he said they “war-gamed all possibilities of such an invasion and drew up a training blueprint on how to respond”. Its projections proved “almost 100 per cent right about the locations and numbers of the Russian army” and after the full outbreak of hostilities last February “we stopped the Russian army at exactly the points we trained for”, he said.
Experience has convinced him that Ukraine will win eventually. “We saw the Russians close up and that’s why we had this confidence, no matter how many of them come to Ukraine to take it, we will hold the line and stop them. “Their mentality hasn’t changed much since Soviet times,” he added. “It’s very hierarchical, there’s no initiative in planning, they don’t use tactics but throw people in.”
Ukraine has been helped by Russian arrogance (“they thought we had no real army”) and corruption, which meant that much of the military equipment that Moscow thought it possessed had been stolen.
The biggest surprise for Muzhenko has been the Russians’ ineptitude at sea and in the air. “Their naval forces in the Black Sea were almost useless and their air force is not in control of the skies in Ukraine. Also Ukrainian air defences are much better than they thought.”
Missiles still get through, however. Early on Thursday people in Kyiv and across the country were woken by thundering booms as missiles streaked across the skies in the biggest barrage for months. More than 80 missiles of many different types were fired, ranging from cheap Iranian exploding drones to six new hypersonic Kinzhal missiles which travel at more than five times the speed of sound and which Kyiv says it cannot stop.
The attack was a reminder that nowhere in Ukraine is safe and perhaps a sign of Russian frustration in an attempt to divert attention from its failure to take Bakhmut, which last weekend looked as if it were finally about to fall.
Instead Ukraine sent in reinforcements and President Zelensky warned that the loss of the city would present an “open road for the Russians” to other towns in Ukraine.
Both sides claim to be using the battle to exhaust the manpower of their enemy in a deadly game of chicken. “The Russian army is saying they are taking a lot of Ukrainian fatalities and tying up our forces,” Muzhenko said. “But they have taken far more — according to our reports they have lost 40,000 of the 50,000 Wagner [mercenary] forces sent to the area. “And the fact is you can see that for nine months with all their power and manpower they haven’t been able to take this small place.”
Ukraine may eventually have to make a strategic withdrawal but he believes that its forces have prevented Bakhmut from becoming a launchpad for a big Russian incursion to the west. “We cannot withdraw at the slightest threat, because then we would end up rolling back not only to Kyiv, but also to the Carpathian mountains,” he said. “But Bakhmut has played its role. I do not think that now, after expending so much power on Bakhmut, the Russians have the conditions for a frontal assault on [the larger nearby towns of] Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, Druzhkivka.”
Even so, a Russian victory would be their first big gain since the capture of nearby Lysychansk eight months ago and the only significant change of territory since Ukraine’s liberation of the southern town of Kherson in November.
Muzhenko warned against complacency. “They have mobilised 526,000 men and produce 30 tanks a day.” He also pointed out that the Russians have a concentration of forces north of Kharkiv.
But for the moment he says the issue is “weather” — the time of year known as “bezdorizhzhia” or “roadlessness” where as snow melts and turns to mud, trucks and armoured vehicles get
bogged down. As the ground hardens, it becomes better for tanks. The next few months will be key.
That is why Ukraine’s allies need to do even more to help, said Kira Rudyk, an MP and head of Holos, Ukraine’s liberal opposition party. Like all parties, it has agreed to support the government during the war. “There’s always super-hope then disappointment as we have learnt that between a world leader going on stage and declaring we give you this and soldiers actually getting it can be six months, which is very painful. Well, there’s no time because people who are alive today may not be tomorrow.” “Putin is more interested in dragging us into a long war but we understand we have to win fast,” she added. “We barely survived this winter — how would we go through the next?”
Christina Lamb OBE is a British journalist and author. She is the chief foreign correspondent of The Sunday Times. Lamb has won sixteen major awards including four British Press Awards and the European Prix Bayeux-Calvados for war correspondents. She is an Honorary Fellow of University College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Global Fellow for the Wilson Centre for International Affairs in Washington D.C. In 2013 she was appointed an OBE by the Queen for services to journalism. In November 2018, Lamb received an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Dundee. She has written ten books including the bestselling The Africa House and I Am Malala, co-written with Malala Yousafzai, which was named Popular Non-Fiction Book of the Year in the British National Book Awards 2013.