Ukraine Enters New Phase of War With Russia: Dig, Dig, Dig

Ukraine’s military is struggling to respond to Russian probing attacks amid a shortage of ammunition and personnel.
Ukraine’s military is struggling to respond to Russian probing attacks amid a shortage of ammunition and personnel.


Russia is attacking Ukrainian forces at several points along the front line as it seeks to capitalize on its recent capture of the eastern city of Avdiivka.

POKROVSK, Ukraine—Russia is attacking Ukrainian forces at several points along the 600-mile front line as it seeks to capitalize on its recent capture of the eastern city of Avdiivka, its first major battlefield victory in months.

Moscow knows Ukrainian units are short on fresh soldiers and ammunition. The U.S. and Europe are failing to rearm Kyiv quickly. Ukrainian officials and military commanders say Russia’s current tactic of probing attacks is meant to take advantage of Moscow’s battlefield initiative before what they see as a likely major Russian offensive as early as this spring.

“What’s happening right now is what Russia has spent a long time preparing for. It has gathered enough forces and resources to pressure various axes all at once," said Maksym Zhorin, deputy commander of Ukraine’s 3rd Assault Brigade, which withdrew from Avdiivka last month.

Ukraine’s military, struggling to respond, is husbanding its ammunition and seeking opportunities to hit Russian forces on the move, an approach known as active defense. To halt a better-manned and better-equipped foe, Ukrainian troops are also digging in.

West of Avdiivka, excavators more common to a construction site than a battlefield are carving up the earth to create antitank ditches and trenches. The Ukrainians are attempting to replicate the physical obstacles that Russia created on its side of the front more than a year ago, with deadly effectiveness in stymying Ukraine’s offensive last summer.

Ukraine in November announced a campaign to build an extensive network of fortifications along the front lines, especially in the areas near Avdiivka. President Volodymyr Zelensky called for accelerated construction and urged private companies and donors to get involved.

“On all the main fronts, we need to dig in, speed up the pace of construction," he said at the time. “The priority is obvious."

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on Monday that almost 31 billion hryvnia, or around $800 million, had been allocated for the construction of fortifications.

But Western officials and Ukrainian soldiers say that the campaign hasn’t yielded significant results, and the absence of progress is proving a liability for Ukraine as Russia steps up its assaults. In recent days it has pushed Ukrainian forces out of a string of villages west of Avdiivka, although hills and bodies of water a little further west can serve as natural obstacles for Kyiv that are easier to defend.

“The lack of layered defenses along the front line should be of some concern for Ukraine," said Franz-Stefan Gady, a Vienna-based defense analyst who recently toured front-line areas in the eastern Donbas region. “The situation will get quite critical for the Ukrainian forces."

Soldiers in the area say troops assigned to combat missions are being forced to dig trenches, often under fire. The complexity of the task means manpower alone won’t suffice.

“In the circumstances we’re in, we have to dig, entrench and build by ourselves," said Zhorin. He said he hopes a line of defense toward the city of Pokrovsk to the west is sufficiently developed to withstand an expected Russian assault in the coming weeks.

When Ukrainian forces launched their major offensive last summer, they quickly became bogged down in an elaborate network of obstacles Russia had spent months preparing. Its main defensive belt had multilayered trench lines, antitank ditches, concrete blocks and extensive minefields that proved almost impossible to traverse.

Building physical defenses is now vital for Ukraine, not least because it is also struggling to mobilize troops. The country has so far pursued an unusual policy of only conscripting men 27 and over and exempting anyone below that age. Fathers of three or more children, carers for disabled people, and workers in critical sectors are exempt. In most countries, military service is more common for men or women starting around age 18.

A revision of Ukraine’s mobilization law that aims to expand the pool of recruits, and lower the recruitment age to 25, is stuck in parliament.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior Zelensky aide, said last month that of Ukraine’s one million-strong standing army, fewer than 300,000 troops had taken part in active combat.

Ukraine’s military command is scouring brigades that were created for last year’s counteroffensive, seeking to bring into combat the thousands of troops currently fulfilling support roles, said Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at Ukraine’s government-linked National Institute for Strategic Studies.

Supporting troops are vital to a large army, though their number relative to combat troops—a proportion known as the tooth-to-tail ratio—can vary. Ukraine deploys almost three support troops for every combat troop, a high number that is a legacy of its Soviet military structure. Reallocating these soldiers could risk weakening the force.

“We can’t indefinitely postpone the issue of mobilization," said Bielieskov. But the task of making military service more appealing is difficult amid a shortage of weapons for recruits and the brutal reality of defending against relentless Russian assaults.

Offsetting Ukraine’s problems are Russia’s own battlefield shortcomings. While Moscow has more men and resources at its disposal than Kyiv, it has struggled to focus them and instead relies on masses of poorly prepared soldiers to overwhelm Ukrainian positions in a tactic that Ukrainian troops say is costing Russia thousands of lives.

“Russian commanders are struggling to orchestrate complex joint efforts," said a senior official at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “They are ordering undermanned, inexperienced units to achieve unrealistic objectives due to political pressure."

While Ukrainian defenses are spotty and uneven “we don’t see that Russia has the capability to exploit breakthroughs" and make significant gains, the official said.

Still, Russia is making progress. It is pushing along four different axes in Ukraine’s east, throwing thousands of men into the fight in a bid to push back Ukrainian troops who have had little time to establish robust defensive lines. Unusually dry weather has facilitated the Russian advance, contrary to expectations that muds common to late February would impede it.

Ukraine has few remaining military strongholds in Donbas that could rival Avdiivka or Bakhmut during periods when these cities served as major hubs for Ukraine’s resistance, said Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That means that with each Russian advance, Ukraine must retreat to often underprepared positions.

Strategic retreats are among the most difficult combat maneuvers for troops to carry out because they must fight advancing forces while covering their own positions and seeking sanctuary. They are the type of operation that well-established militaries drill frequently—and one Ukraine’s forces aren’t uniformly adept at, especially because many of the country’s best-trained troops have been killed or wounded over the past two years.

Russia’s pressure makes the job harder.

Serhiy Cherevaty, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said that across large parts of the eastern front line, Russia is firing seven artillery shells for every shell Ukraine fires.

Bielieskov, at the government-linked think tank, said Moscow wants to wear down Ukrainian forces, staging probing attacks along the front line instead of full-scale assaults aimed at taking new territory. The attritional strategy aims to exhaust Ukraine’s manpower reserves and force it to use up precious ammunition, Bielieskov said.

“They’re in quite a comfortable situation," he said. “They’re laying the ground for a major push in the second half of this year."

While Ukraine grapples with manpower problems, Russia is adding around 30,000 men to its armed forces each month, according to Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence.

But Russia is also losing men at a rapid pace. Ukrainian soldiers who have recently engaged Russian forces in battle say they are astonished by the Russians’ apparent disregard for the value of human life. Russia paid an enormous price for the capture of Avdiivka, with one Russian military blogger saying 16,000 men died.

It also lost more than 400 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy armor, according to the NATO official. The British defense ministry said in an intelligence briefing this week that an average of 983 soldiers a day had been killed or wounded in Ukraine during February—the highest casualty rate since Moscow launched its large-scale invasion two years ago.

“I’m not sure they can keep up this tempo of advance for long, because their losses are crazy and hard to wrap your head around," said Zhorin. “But at the moment, they have the forces to do it."

Write to Matthew Luxmoore at and Daniel Michaels at

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