‘Slow, nasty, grueling’: Ukrainian counter-offensive on Donbas front could hold key to course of winter war

Elite Kyiv units and a Russian force of professional soldiers, recruits, mercenaries and prisoners are locked in a bitter struggle for control of the Kreminna-Svatove axis that will determine the next phase of Russia’s invasion

Ukrainian counter-offensive on Donbas
Ukrainian soldiers in the Yampil forests in the Sacred Mountains National Park.MARÍA R. SAHUQUILLO

Captain “Ginger” brushes off his mud-splattered khaki pants, rests one foot on the trunk of a collapsed tree and readjusts his rifle. His efforts are futile. The forest is caked with mud. To the right and left, violent explosions shake the wild grove of the Sacred Mountains, on the road to Kreminna, one of the Luhansk strongholds in the east of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces in April during the early stages of the invasion. “They don’t give us a break, but we don’t give them a break either,” nods the Ukrainian captain. The pine forests bordering the Seversky Donets river have become the stage for one of the most vital battles of attrition in the latest phase of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The fighting is a classic battle of back-and-forth, trenches, raiding parties and ambushes in the undergrowth and mud in the heart of Donbas, where every meter counts and the days seem like months.

Hunkered down in trenches carved from the sodden earth among tall and thin pine trees, in small tents or makeshift foxholes, Russian forces occupy a part of the Sacred Mountain National Park and other positions in an area commonly known as the Yampil forests. “They want to advance and retake Yampil [liberated by Ukrainian troops on September 30] and Liman. Their commanders keep sending soldiers and recruits like swarms of cockroaches. And we crush them, like insects,” mutters Captain Ginger, square-chested and ruddy-faced like his nickname suggests.

Captain Ginger’s 5th Assault Brigade and other Ukrainian units are engaged in a grueling battle to push Russian troops from the forest and advance on two fronts: from the east toward Kreminna and from the north on Svatove, an axis that would provide the Ukrainian Army with a solid geographical and logistical foothold to extend their lines toward Lysychansk and Severodonetsk. Moscow captured these two cities in the Luhansk region in June and July after ferocious fighting and a brutal siege, and after Kyiv liberated the Black Sea port city of Kherson, they represent the Kremlin’s two biggest military achievements of the war.

Ukrainian soldiers on the Kreminna-Svatove front.
Ukrainian soldiers on the Kreminna-Svatove front.MARÍA R. SAHUQUILLO

The Ukrainian counter-offensive on Russian positions on the Kreminna-Svatove front was launched last autumn and is being carried out by some of Kyiv’s elite units. The muddy terrain is now more compact and intelligence reports and satellite imagery have provided evidence that the Russians have reinforced their positions and are making preparations for renewed attacks at various points on the front, leading Ukrainian forces in the area to tighten and streamline their own operations. As people the world over celebrate the Christmas holiday, Bushinka, a wiry private, smokes a cigarette on a corrugated iron roof blown apart by a missile. His nickname means “pearl” in Ukrainian, the mild-mannered and well-spoken soldier smiles, before re-entering the mined grove he has come to know like the back of his hand.

The situation in Donbas is “difficult and painful,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his daily video address on Monday night, which has become an indispensable war report for thousands of people who seek cryptic signals in his words, as in his Christian Christmas message when he spoke of a bright star over the sky of Kreminna. “The occupiers are using all the resources available to them - and these are significant resources - to squeeze out at least some advance,” Zelenskiy said.

Standing by the side of a vehicle covered with camouflage nets, Captain Ginger and his men survey the ramshackle road that winds toward the “gray zone” - no man’s land - that the forest has become. An armored car with a trailer carrying a huge piece of rust-colored steel limps across the precarious road, littered with potholes and debris from artillery fire. During the night, Russian forces blew up one of the pontoon bridges that provided passage over the river. The task facing Ukrainian troops now is to build another floating roadway under sustained shelling.

Despite the bridge setback, the Ukrainian Army has advanced around a mile over the past few days toward occupied Kreminna, according to Serhiy Haidai, head of the Luhansk Regional Military–Civil Administration. “We have ruined the offensive plans of the occupying forces. Things are going well,” he said in an interview.

Russia remains in control of almost the entire Luhansk region and Haidai has been in the Kremlin’s crosshairs since the beginning of the invasion, when he refused to collaborate with Russia. Nicknamed “Ronin,” he travels in an armored van wearing a bulletproof vest, crisscrossing Donbas, a region Russia claims it is trying to liberate with a hail of mortars and missiles, in an attempt to alter the course of a war that has not gone according to the plans of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Ukrainian Army is fighting to retake the Kreminna stronghold, occupied by Russia in the early stages of the invasion.
The Ukrainian Army is fighting to retake the Kreminna stronghold, occupied by Russia in the early stages of the invasion.MARÍA R. SAHUQUILLO

Western aid has also changed the course of the battle in the forests, says Yara, who serves in a military intelligence unit. The slim young woman, her hair woven into dozens of small braids, says it is not only due to the “obvious” element of firepower the Western allies have provided to Kiev, but also logistics. “We used to move around in old tanks that could break down at the worst moment, as we have experienced, or in Mitsubishi vehicles and even delivery vans,” she says. “Now we have MaxxPros and Hummers.”

On the other side of the Seversky Donets river, Moscow has assembled a heterogenous but numerous force for another offensive, made up of professional soldiers, recruits from Putin’s partial mobilization, Wagner Company mercenaries and prisoners enlisted as military contractors from Russia’s jails. After a series of battlefield defeats in recent months, the Kremlin has now turned its focus primarily on Donbas, where prior to the full-scale invasion the Ukrainian army and pro-Russia separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk had been engaged in a fluctuating struggle in trenches and fixed positions for eight years.

Two soldiers on the Donbas front.
Two soldiers on the Donbas front. MARÍA R. SAHUQUILLO

Private Bushinka says most of the Russian assault groups in the area are well-equipped and trained, particularly the regular army units and mercenaries. Moscow has deployed tank groups in the forests of the Sacred Mountains and uses blanket artillery strikes - although various intelligence reports claim that the Kremlin has been experiencing ammunition supply problems in recent days – as well as assault brigades that attack in waves. The Russians alternate their attacks, says Yara. Sometimes the lead units are made up of “cannon fodder” – conscripts and untrained prisoners – and sometimes mercenaries and professional soldiers are sent against the Ukrainian lines.

Meanwhile, in a relentless dance, Ukrainian forces are also trying to advance. Military analysts believe the entire course of the Donbas winter war may depend on the battle along the Kreminna-Svatove line and the bitter struggle for control of Bakhmut, besieged by Putin’s forces and the scene of bloody street-to-street combat where Kyiv’s forces are mounting a fierce defense that has turned into another symbol of Ukraine’s unity and resistance. Regaining control of the Kreminna-Svatove axis would allow Ukrainian forces to drive a wedge between the Russian units assaulting Bakhmut. “That’s what this war is like,” says Bushinka, “Slow, nasty, grueling. But this is our land and it is worth everything.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS