As Russia relies on overwhelming destructive force to grind forward a mile or two a day in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian soldiers fighting some 400 miles to the south have been working steadily to chip away at Russian frontline positions across an expanse of steppes and swamps.
The fighting is fierce on both fronts, and how the two campaigns unfold is critical to understanding where the war stands, as concern grows that a protracted conflict will bring Ukraine’s allies new economic costs.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said this past week that he thought he would wait the West out. While the Russian leader rarely acknowledges Russian losses or defeats, military analysts said that the battering his army has taken raised questions about whether it can sustain broad offensive operations after its campaign to capture Luhansk Province is over.
Russia has committed the bulk of its combat forces to the capture of Lysychansk, the last urban center in Luhansk still controlled by the Ukrainian government, and it could fall any day.
Russia has dispatched thousands of additional soldiers to the east in recent weeks to reinforce its offensive into neighboring Donetsk Province, where it will once again likely try to overwhelm heavily fortified Ukrainian positions with its large arsenal of artillery, missiles and air power, even if its ground forces are diminished.
Just how diminished each army is after more than four months of war is an open question. Kyiv releases only broad estimates about its losses, and Moscow says virtually nothing.
The British defense chief, Ben Wallace, said this past week that 25,000 Russian soldiers had been killed since the war started. The number, which could not be independently confirmed, is the highest estimate provided by a senior Western official. The Ukrainian government has acknowledged that it has suffered staggering losses, with hundreds of casualties every day.
Even if Russia can push deeper into Donetsk, its military has struggled to sustain an advance along multiple lines of attack in different parts of a country that is roughly the size of Texas.
The defeat of the Russians on Thursday on Snake Island in the Black Sea, where its troops were forced to retreat under a sustained Ukrainian bombardment, underscored how dependent the Russians are on their superiority in heavy weapons.
The Russian withdrawal from the island was expected to undermine Moscow’s control of vital grain shipping lanes from Odesa. And when Russian missile strikes on a residential building and a recreational center near Odesa killed at least 21 people on Friday, the Ukrainians viewed it as an act of vengeance.
“This was an act of revenge for the successful liberation of Snake Island,” Yevhen Yenin, the first deputy minister of internal affairs, said in an interview. He scoffed at Russian claims that leaving the island was a gesture of “good will.”
With its forces stretched thin, Russia has for months been trying to fortify its defensive positions in the south, where Ukraine has retaken parts of the Kherson region west of the Dnieper River that Russia captured early in the war.
The Ukrainian military has said that the Russians have been driven from perimeter defensive positions in several locations and that Ukrainian soldiers are operating within 20 miles of the city of Kherson. A senior U.S. defense department official said this past week that the Ukrainians were not only taking back villages, but also showing an ability to hold the retaken ground.
But military analysts have cautioned that despite Ukrainian gains in the south, they are unlikely to be able to mount a broad offensive and move soon on the city of Kherson, the only provincial capital to fall to the Russians.
At the moment, Ukraine’s forces are counterattacking to the north and south of the city. At the same time, insurgents inside Kherson have stepped up a campaign to assassinate Russian proxy leaders and assist the Ukrainian military by engaging in sabotage operations and helping direct fire at Russian targets.
On Thursday, the Ukrainian military’s southern command said that its forces had launched missile and artillery strikes on 150 targets, killing more than 40 Russian soldiers and destroying a host of Russian artillery and armor. The claims could not be independently confirmed, but data from NASA satellites that track fires noted activity across the southern front.