Ukraine’s chances of pushing Russia out look increasingly grim

Ukrainian soldiers in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. The front line is barely moving thanks to Ukrainian bravery and ingenuity. (Photo: Serhii Korovayny for The Wall Street Journal)
Ukrainian soldiers in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. The front line is barely moving thanks to Ukrainian bravery and ingenuity. (Photo: Serhii Korovayny for The Wall Street Journal)

Summary

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy of outlasting Ukraine’s Western support is proving durable, and the coming months could turn the tide of the war decisively in Russia’s favor.

KYIV, Ukraine—On the battlefronts of the east, threadbare Ukrainian forces are doggedly holding on against mounting Russian assaults that are expected to crescendo in the summer.

Thinned air defenses struggle to stop Russian 1.5-ton guided bombs from pulverizing buildings. Front lines are held by a patchwork of units that are short of their full complement of troops. Halting armored columns depends largely on small explosive drones, given meager supplies of artillery shells.

“We are short of everything," said one company commander operating around the embattled eastern city of Chasiv Yar.

The war in Ukraine is at a critical moment as it approaches a third summer. Russia’s greater size is weighing on its smaller neighbor, with waves of armored vehicles and soldiers grinding forward against exhausted Ukrainian units across a front line that arcs from the northeast to southeast.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy of outlasting Ukraine’s Western support is proving durable, and the coming months could turn the tide of the war decisively in Russia’s favor. Ukraine’s military is short on ammunition and battle-ready troops, as Congress has stalled on a supplemental aid package and Kyiv has dithered over calling up more men.

Without infusions of fresh manpower and Western military equipment, Ukraine could face further losses of its land and best troops, dimming any hope of taking back the nearly 20% of its territory already occupied.

To be sure, Russia is gaining ground very slowly and suffering heavy losses in personnel and equipment. If Ukraine can cling on this year and replenish its forces, it could seek to counterattack against a drained enemy.

But with the future of U.S. aid uncertain, and European countries unable to significantly increase assistance quickly, Ukraine’s prospects for turning the tables on Russia are dimming.

“Without this aid, we’ll have no chance of winning," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told PBS in an interview aired Tuesday. Russian artillery can fire 10 shells for every one of Ukraine’s, he said. “Can we stand like this? No," Zelensky said. “Whatever we do, with these numbers, they will push us back every day."

In a sign of hope for Ukraine, the Czech Republic recently orchestrated acquisition of almost one million artillery shells, which are going straight to the front. Other such efforts are being organized. If Ukraine’s allies can restock its arsenals, Kyiv’s forces may be able to thwart further Russian advances.

The front line is barely moving thanks to Ukrainian bravery and ingenuity—and Russian tactical weaknesses.

“We are more efficient, more effective, more technological," said a Ukrainian officer who commands an aerial-drone unit near the eastern city of Avdiivka, which fell to Russia in February. “They go home after any defeat, but we lose our land, our homes, our people."

Still, “the situation on the battlefield remains serious," said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently. “Ukraine needs more air defenses, more ammunition, and more aid."

Ukraine repulsed Russia’s initial assault on its capital, Kyiv, in 2022 and retook lost territory in the northeast and south. But a Ukrainian counteroffensive last year gained almost no ground at the cost of thousands of motivated troops.

Now, Russia is pushing to advance on several fronts. After seizing Avdiivka, Russian troops began pushing into villages to its west, but didn’t achieve a breakthrough.

A critical Russian target is the city of Chasiv Yar, located on heights to the west of Bakhmut, which Russia captured last year.

Taking Chasiv Yar, once home to just over 10,000 people, would open a path to attacking other cities, such as Kostyantynivka and Kramatorsk, in the eastern Donetsk region. The province is a key target for Putin, who has declared it annexed to Russia.

A Russian raid with armored vehicles reached the eastern flank of the city earlier this month, but was repelled. A canal on that edge of the city offers a natural barrier against vehicles, but soldiers say Russia is likely to send infantry to try to get a foothold in buildings.

Ukraine is adapting by conserving its supplies and repositioning forces to better protect them and their equipment. Defenders have an advantage against attackers, who must expose themselves in order to advance. Ukraine’s military has sought to shore up defenses through networks of trenches, bunkers and minefields, although soldiers say they are patchy.

“They’re already taking some tough decisions and adopting a much more considered defensive stance," said retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander.

European governments are exerting themselves to find ammunition and resources for Ukraine, most notably through the Czech initiative. Germany said Saturday that it would send an additional Patriot air-defense system to Ukraine.

“A positive is that the Europeans are beginning to step up," said Breedlove.

But Russia’s advantages in manpower and equipment are becoming harder to defend against.

While Russia has suffered considerable battlefield losses in Ukraine—including more than 2,000 tanks and 315,000 soldiers wounded or dead—its traditional land forces have been degraded far more than its air force and navy, said U.S. Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, NATO’s current supreme allied commander, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on April 10.

“Russia is reconstituting that force far faster than our initial estimates suggested," he said, adding that its army is now 15% larger than it was when it launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

While larger in total troop numbers, Russia’s military lost many of its best troops in fighting over the past two years, analysts note.

Some Western military-intelligence officials believe that for now Russia is less focused on achieving immediate territorial gains than eroding Ukraine’s ability and will to fight. Russia’s increased drone and missile attacks aim to show its strength, degrade Kyiv’s resources and show Ukraine’s Western backers that supporting it is futile.

Severe recent damage to Ukrainian infrastructure, such as the destruction of the largest thermal-power plant in Kyiv on Thursday, suggests the country’s air-defense capabilities are dwindling, analysts say.

Zelensky told PBS that air-defense systems protecting the plant downed seven Russian missiles but ran out of interceptors, allowing four Russian missiles to hit and destroy it.

Russia is seeking to take advantage of Ukraine’s shortages on the battlefield, too.

Every day, Russian forces are dropping dozens of massive guided bombs on Chasiv Yar, launched from warplanes that usually operate just beyond the range of Ukrainian air-defense systems.

Ukraine’s main weapon for stopping Russian armored vehicles is now the first-person-view, or FPV, drone.

The explosive craft is steered via remote control by a pilot using goggles transmitting a live-video feed from onboard.

Russia has started sending larger columns of up to 20 vehicles that Ukrainian drone teams struggle to stop as FPVs can only be deployed one at a time because they share radio frequency.

One soldier described a Russian tank that was advancing with a jammer attached and nets to block FPVs. It was eventually halted by an artillery shell.

Russia is showing little care for its men, Ukrainian soldiers say.

Armored vehicles sometimes advance with soldiers perched on top, forming a barrier with their bodies that has to be blasted away before the vehicle itself can be targeted. Ukrainians call the phenomenon “meat armor."

Russia can afford to be more wasteful than Ukraine because it has a population more than three times the size and is adding about 30,000 new military personnel every month, according to Ukrainian officials. But poor training of troops and coordination of units limit their effectiveness.

Ukraine’s lack of significant additional manpower means that losses are replaced piecemeal in units kept on the same part of the front for lengthy periods. While that means they are familiar with the lay of the land, it also creates a patchwork of units from various brigades that struggle to communicate and cooperate effectively.

Ukraine is moving its best units from one place on the front line to another. Battalions from the 3rd Assault Brigade, one of the army’s most powerful units, fought around Bakhmut last year, was sent into Avdiivka as defenses collapsed, then redeployed to near Kupyansk in the north.

Asked how they were holding the line with dwindling ammunition, an officer from the brigade said: “At the cost of lives."

The best units, stacked with highly motivated volunteers and led by respected commanders, carry out their own recruiting campaigns and are oversubscribed. Others are struggling to replenish their ranks.

Kyiv this month has advanced legislation to widen the draft pool. Zelensky signed a law reducing the mobilization age to 25 from 27, and Parliament last week passed a bill offering bonuses for soldiers and penalties for draft dodgers.

But the changes will take time to filter through. The age of recruits remains a problem. One officer at a high-level training center said he is often presented with men in their 40s, some transferred from guard duty or recruiting centers. One died after suffering a heart attack during an exercise.

“Wars are won by young men," he said.

Sune Engel Rasmussen contributed to this article.

Write to James Marson at james.marson@wsj.com and Daniel Michaels at Dan.Michaels@wsj.com

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