The war in eastern Ukraine appears to be entering a critical phase, as Russia pours in more fighting units and Ukrainian forces try to hold lines battered by weeks of shelling and rocket fire.
On Wednesday, the Ukrainian military acknowledged losing territory in two different areas of the long front lines they are defending, a reflection perhaps of the sheer volume of Russian forces being deployed as well as improving Russian tactics.
Essentially Ukrainian forces are defending three sides of a slowly shrinking pocket in the east, with their only supply lines running in from the west. The risk – if the Russians make progress – is that some of the Ukrainian army’s best units, lacking protection from the air, could be cut off.
The Ukrainian military said Wednesday that Russia has transferred two more battalion tactical groups of the 76th Airborne Assault Division from the Russian city of Belgorod to the Izium area inside Ukraine – as well as cruise missile units.
The Kremlin’s declared aim is to secure all of Luhansk and Donetsk regions – with the Russian military also eyeing a permanent land corridor connecting Russia’s territory with Crimea along the Ukrainian coast.
The Russian modus operandi seems similar regardless of location: days and sometimes weeks of heavy artillery, missile and air strikes that pulverize towns and cities, followed by the slow movement forward of armor.
In Donetsk region, the Russian focus is on taking two important towns: Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, both of which were briefly held by Russian-backed separatists in 2014.
Russian units are trying to push towards these centers from three directions. Advance units are probably within 10 miles of Sloviansk, and images emerged Wednesday of a road bridge southeast of the town that had been blown up – possibly a defensive move by Ukrainian units fighting a tactical withdrawal.
The Russian Ministry of Defense in its recent statements has suggested the offensive is accelerating, supported from the air. On Wednesday, it claimed 50 Ukrainian formations had been hit by its combat planes in the previous 24 hours.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington says Russian tactics appear to have improved. “Russian troops are pushing down multiple roughly parallel roads within supporting distance of one another, allowing them to bring more combat power to bear than their previous practice had supported,” the ISW says in its latest analysis.