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No More Quiet on the Eastern Front

After a weekslong tactical pause, the terrible battle for eastern Ukraine is upon us

Vladislav Davidzon
May 06, 2022
Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images
Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

The battle of Kyiv is over; the battle of Donbas is about to begin. On the latter point the Russian General Staff and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agree, after the Ukrainians came away from Kyiv as victorious as they have been in the international information and narrative battle. I spent last week on Ukrainian bases on the eastern frontline, and despite the intensity of the Russian rocket and artillery bombardment taking place around the clock, the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine remains stalled. Russian forces are reportedly taking heavy casualties there as Vladimir Putin harries his generals to achieve evermore improbable objectives in the run up to Russia’s annual Victory Day parade, commemorating the end of World War II. Over the years, the May 9th parade outside the Kremlin has been transformed into a tribute to Russian imperialism and chauvinism. Moscow has only a few days left to spin any sort of tactical gain in Ukraine into a smashing symbolic victory. The British foreign secretary has predicted that Putin will use the parade to announce a mass mobilization of his reserves. On the frontlines, meanwhile, Ukrainian servicemen make wisecracks about reducing the number of Russian vehicles available for the pomp.

The war is shifting in register from methodic attrition to a rising crescendo. A weekslong pause in fighting gave both sides an opportunity to rearm, resupply, and reorganize. Both sides are dug in and preparing for a massive confrontation in the East. Russian artillery has hammered the outer reaches of Ukrainian positions, while the Ukrainians have continued their strategy of slowly trading territory for time while degrading Russian logistical and supply lines and picking off Russian generals one by one. Around a dozen Russian generals have reportedly been killed in the field so far, a harrowing break in the chain of command unseen since 1945.

Moscow intends to cut the Ukrainians off from any access to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Over the last week, I observed new Ukrainian convoys streaming in to reinforce the country’s defensive positions in the Donbas. I was also in Odessa last Friday, when Russian rockets destroyed the city’s newly repaired landing strip. I am glad that my mother-in-law, of blessed memory—she had worked there as an air traffic controller for 40 years—did not live long enough to see her beloved airport rendered inoperable.

Recent attempts by United Nations General Secretary António Guterres to negotiate an armistice through personal shuttle diplomacy predictably floundered. Guterres had been widely criticized for making the trip to Moscow in the first place; the Russian army had struck the Kyiv suburbs with a pair of rockets while the secretary general was still in the city. If the brazen disrespect wasn’t obvious enough, the Ukrainian foreign minister wasted no time in clarifying:

The Russian forces that captured the eastern Ukrainian town of Izyum some three weeks ago hope to cut a path south and encircle the battle-hardened Ukrainians arrayed in the unoccupied parts of the Donbas. When I visited their positions, I was informed that wounds received by artillery barrages were the leading cause of casualties, not infantry fighting. In the last 10 days, Russian forces have concentrated their eastern assaults on the towns of Rubizhnya, Popasnaya, and Liman, where the majority of the civilian populations have been evacuated. One Ukrainian soldier who has fought in the area described the bombardment to me as being “utterly hellish. Bad enough that we all deserve to go directly to heaven.” Yet Russian advances into the region have been mostly rebuffed, and with the exception of Izyum, the Ukrainian positions have mostly held. The Russians are also attempting to capture small towns to the north of Kharkiv in order to besiege the city, but there, too, the results have been decidedly mixed, with Ukrainian forces mounting small-scale counter offenses.

In the Dergachyovsky District of Ukraine, which abuts the Russian border, the Russians are being pushed out of small villages and towns that they first occupied in early March. A Ukrainian officer from the town of Dvurechni Kut—he was given the ironic and humorously inaccurate call sign “Mulatto” because he is half Tatar and a quarter Jewish, with dark black hair and a voluminous beard—told me that the Russians had been stopped only a few kilometers from his house. His cousin, who had been driving home to see his aunt, was pulled out of his car by Russian soldiers checking documents and hasn’t been seen since.

“They were hitting schools in my town thinking that the Ukrainian army was living in them, and because of the lack of precision of their munitions, a certain amount of people were killed. The Russian planes fly high and so they hit the civil population. But our guys on that front had a very polite conversation with the occupiers and insisted that they go on their way,” Mulatto told me with a chuckle. “Our guys have pushed them away from my town, and with their usual results I think the chances of them surrounding Kharkiv are now markedly smaller than they had been even a week ago.”

The Ukrainians currently have the manpower they need in the East, but many of the young men I spoke with in the newly formed or reorganized national guard battalions had enlisted only very recently, and officials continue to plead for more heavy weaponry and replenishment of their ammunition stocks. Most of those I met had only a few weeks or even a few days of training. Kyiv has been full of stories, however anecdotal, of Ukrainian men mobbing territorial recruitment stations and demanding a chance to volunteer, only to be turned away due to overmet recruitment quotas. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but the Ukrainian mobilization of the last two months seems to have more or less leveled out the casualties so far. The same does not appear to be true for the Russian side, though because of the asymmetry of available information, we still lack an accurate picture of the state of both militaries.

What we do seem to know is that the morale of the pro-Russian “separatist troops” in eastern Ukraine is particularly low. As another Ukrainian frontline officer explained to me, “Some of them indeed fight better than the exhausted and ragged Russian conscripts who are dragooned to be here, but in this sector, for the most part, they are now being used as cannon fodder—and they both know and resent it.” Social media platforms have shown videos of women in Russian-occupied eastern territories protesting against the forced conscription of their husbands, sons, and brothers. Desperate for more manpower, the Russian occupation authorities have already begun press-ganging all males younger than 55 years old in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to fight as lightly armed and expendable conscripts. Multiple Ukrainian soldiers and officers pointed out to me with disgust and contempt that the demoralized Donetsk People’s Republic and its conscript forces often forgo the collection of the remains of their comrades, routinely leaving the bodies of their dead to decompose in the streets.

One serious, if not yet dire, concern is the shortage of fuel across Ukraine, as Russian forces have strategically taken out oil depots and petrol stations. When crossing the Romanian-Ukrainian border out of Odessa last weekend, I didn’t see a petrol station for great distances, and the ones I did find in the South had already started rationing supplies. Meanwhile, numerous mysterious blasts have destroyed Russian oil depots in regions close to the Ukrainian border. When asked about these obviously targeted strikes on Russian territory, several Ukrainian flag officers replied “no comment” and looked at me with broad smirks.

It is hard not to feel uplifted by such encounters with these brave and devoted men. But on our drive out of eastern Ukraine, the special reconnaissance officer who was giving me a lift explained that large swaths of the Ukrainian forces are unimaginably exhausted after two months on the front. “Some of our infantry are already at the breaking point as personalities and human beings after fighting continually without rotations,” he said. “Most days in this place are like a week. Some days last a month.”

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.