In the south, Ukrainian troops are pressing a grueling counteroffensive, fighting meter by meter to retake occupied territory from Russian forces that are dug into defensive positions. In the northeast, however, it is unclear if Russia is really trying to advance or is creating a distraction hoping to divert Ukrainian resources.
Ukrainian officials say Moscow is to trying gain ground toward Kupyansk, a small city veined with strategic roads and rail tracks, including a train line that reaches Russia’s border. Russian forces occupied the town for six months last year before Ukraine took it back roughly a year ago.
Now, in a sign of the seemingly pointless destruction and circularity of this war, the Russians appear intent on seizing it again, and in recent weeks have made bloody and modest gains, prompting a public call for reinforcements from Ukraine’s top commander in the east.
Officials and analysts have speculated over Moscow’s goals in the area and whether it is sensible.
Seizing Kupyansk would be difficult. The city, just 25 miles from the Russian border, is bisected by the Oskil River, and crossing it would invite targeted strikes. Putting the river at the their backs could also become catastrophic for the Russians if they are stymied and need to retreat.
Kupyansk is located in Kharkiv, which is not one of the four Ukrainian regions that Russian President Vladimir Putin, in violation of international law, has declared to be annexed by Russia.
“The Russians do not abandon the goal of advancing in this direction, as well as in the Lyman direction,” Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said, referring to another city liberated by Ukraine’s forces last year. “Therefore, they increasingly regroup their troops, make replacements and prepare for battles.”
Russian forces carry out several attacks a day and frequently shell Ukrainian positions, although attacks have “somewhat decreased” compared to two weeks ago, Maliar said in a statement.
Civilians have been wounded and killed in the constant attacks on Kupyansk, and officials have ordered a mandatory evacuation, though only 1,400 have done so as of Aug. 30 — well short of more the roughly 11,000 people believed to still live in the area.
Barring a collapse on either side, the most likely scenario seems to be stalemate — with neither side ready or able to make substantial advances.
Whatever the objective, the Russian push here has also drawn them closer to the barrels of the 3rd Tank Brigade. Work has been steady, and Leshyi’s crew recently helped destroy some electronic warfare equipment, he said.
This indirect contact with the enemy does not offer the same instant gratification as other battles. “Most of the time we don’t even know what we are shooting at,” Leshyi said from the hatch of his T-72. “Sometimes we only see videos of our work.”
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, who resigned on Monday, said in late August that it was “logical” that the Russians would adopt a strategy of diverting Ukrainian troops from the south. But in doing so, Russia “risks dividing its forces as it seeks to prevent a Ukrainian breakthrough,” Britain’s Defense Ministry recently said.
In any case, the 3rd Tank Brigade is ready, and its soldiers have said they have already seen the Russian’s tactics evolving after heavy losses this summer.
The Russians are no longer maneuvering in large groups, as they did early in the war, which invited coordinated Ukrainian fire, said a 45-year-old tank platoon commander with the call sign Drukar. Instead, Russian troops recently have attacked in smaller numbers, he said, probing the Ukrainian lines for weaknesses. The strategy has been uneven, Drukar said.
“They want to attack and defend at the same time,” he said, “and they don’t know what to do.”
Other field commanders have watched the Russian troops revise their strategy, sometimes making peculiar decisions, and at other times adjusting tactics to suit their advantages.
Dolphin, a company commander in the 68th Brigade specializing in assault, said Russians in the area had fired artillery at his predecessors, but did not tend to launch ground attacks. Dolphin deployed a fleet of armored vehicles, including U.S.-provided MRAPs, to take the fight closer to the enemy.
That triggered an escalation, he said, and soon Russian commanders deployed aviation units, tanks and armored vehicles against them, though they did not mobilize infantry to take ground. The Ukrainians destroyed 10 tanks in two days, Dolphin said. The Russians losing three vehicles in a day was normal.
“As a result of this failed offensive, the enemy began to carry out airstrikes on the nearest villages where personnel and equipment were concentrated,” he said. “Just dense airstrikes, which led to certain losses of personnel and equipment. But these actions of theirs looked like a manifestation of their weakness.”
Southeast of Kupyansk, Russian helicopters strafed a band of trees with rocket fire on Friday, occasionally raking it with artillery rounds. Under the canopy, Ukrainian troops, exhausted from their time in the trenches, used a footpath to evacuate a wounded soldier on a litter.
Ihor, a 23-year-old airborne soldier, smoked a cigarette and listened to the rolling machine gun fire bellowing from the area he had just left. Ihor’s view of the war is confined to the space between his lines and the Russians trying to take them, leaving him to learn about the counteroffensive in the south from the news. It has been a tough fight, he said.
“The rest of the front just needs to stay and hold,” he said, before moving to a rear position — and a brief respite.
Back at the tank position, Leshyi and Drukar ordered their tanks to fire up the engines for a multiday mission. Border guards found a seat on the hull, and in a plume of acrid exhaust, the tanks pulled away from the tree line toward their next objective.
Leshyi, more than two decades younger than his superior, drove out first, with the older Drukar following in the rear. A soldier joked the order would be helpful for the relatively spry soldiers to take the lead.
“They’re young,” the soldier said of the crew. “They need the training.”
Kamila Hrabchuk contributed to this report.—