Military briefing: Ukraine digs deep as Russians advance

If you want to live, dig, goes the adage by which Ukrainian soldiers have lived since Russia’s all-out invasion two years ago. The deeper their trenches, the better protected they are from exploding shrapnel and snipers’ bullets.

“It’s still true,” said Yevhen, a soldier on the eastern front. “But now, if we don’t want to lose more of our land, we must also dig, dig and dig.”

A month after Ukrainian troops retreated from the eastern industrial city of Avdiivka, handing Russia its first big battlefield victory in almost a year, Kyiv is still fighting on its heels.

Russian units are not sweeping across the battlefield as they did in February 2022. But they are making small and steady gains in southern and eastern Ukraine and are seemingly intent on capturing Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv regions over the next 34 months, according to the Centre for Defence Strategies, a Ukrainian security think-tank.

The Kremlin’s troops are taking advantage of Ukraine’s dwindling supplies of artillery and ammunition while Washington drags its feet on critical future military support for Kyiv and the EU scrambles to fill the gap.

But Ukraine’s lack of robust, layered defensive lines is another reason the Russian army has been able to steadily press ahead and capture smaller swaths of territory along the 1,000km frontline.

Earlier this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine would build new fortifications along three lines of defence totalling 2,000km by the end of spring. On Wednesday, he visited a location in northern Sumy region to check on their progress. 

“I inspected trenches, dugouts, fire and command observation posts,” he said, sharing a video of himself walking through the new earthworks. “Construction of fortifications continues,” he added. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits territorial defence trenches in the Sumy region on Wednesday © Ukrainian presidential press service/AFP/Getty Images

The absence of fortified defences around Avdiivka was especially unnerving for many in Ukraine, since the city had been targeted by Russian forces as far back as 2014 and fought over ever since. 

In a rare outburst of criticism, several Ukrainian analysts and journalists scolded their political and military leaders for not having better prepared fortifications for their troops to fall back to as the Russians tightened their grip on Avdiivka.

“Where is the second line of defence?” asked Kostiantyn and Vlada Liberov, prominent Ukrainian photographers embedded with units in Avdiivka as the city fell and scores of troops were either killed or captured.

Valentyn Badrak, director of the Kyiv-based Army, Conversion and Disarmament Research Center, said Ukraine’s military leadership displayed a “certain euphoria” and believed that western support would “never stop”, allowing them to press ahead — so the construction of fortifications behind the frontline was not considered to be necessary. 

The order to build new, stronger defences should have come in late 2022 at the start of the “frantic pressure on Bakhmut”, Badrak said, referring to the eastern Ukrainian city where a 10-month battle cost Kyiv thousands of experienced soldiers and precious munitions. 

Satellite imagery showing weak Ukrainian defenses to west of Bakhmut which fell under Russian control in 2023 after a months-long batle

Military experts and Ukrainian soldiers who have described that fight as a “meat grinder” argue that the prolonged defence of Bakhmut sapped critical resources ahead of its summer 2023 counteroffensive, which was unsuccessful.

That failure, along with severe shortages of ammunition and manpower and the lack of layered defensive lines, has now allowed Moscow’s army to seize the initiative.

Since November, however, Kyiv has been rushing to build new fortifications to try to stop its bigger and better equipped enemy from taking more territory — Russia currently occupies roughly 20 per cent of Ukraine.

Russia has been grinding out small territorial gains for the past 18 months. Chart showing territory taken by Russia and territory recaptured by the Ukrainian counteroffensive since the war began

A new working group within Ukraine’s defence ministry is coordinating construction. Fortifications on the first line of defence are being done by the military units assigned to the area, while the second and third lines are carried out by the State Agency for Reconstruction and Infrastructure Development with the help of private contractors.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said more than 30bn hryvnia (about $800mn) has been allocated to building fortifications this year.

But construction only began ramping up in February, around the time Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky was appointed as new commander-in-chief of the armed forces and announced that Ukraine had moved from offensive actions to “active defence”.

This new strategy means Kyiv seeks to hold its ground while still probing for weak spots such as using long-range air missiles and drones to strike the Russian Black Sea fleet and oil refineries deep within Russia. 

Western officials told the Financial Times last month the “active defence” strategy would also allow Ukraine to build up its forces this year and prepare for 2025, when it might have a better chance at a counteroffensive. 

Zelenskyy earlier this month said the focus of the fortification drive was flashpoint areas on the frontline, including Avdiivka, Bakhmut and Lyman in Donetsk; Kupyansk in Kharkiv; and Robotyne in Zaporizhzhia.

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In all those areas, excavators are humming and workers are busy installing various complex obstacles and laying minefields to be used in the event of a Russian breakthrough. Concrete “dragon’s teeth” obstacles, anti-tank ditches and snaking trench systems with concrete bunkers would significantly slow down the enemy.

“We are building where the enemy advanced easily in 2022,” said Yaroslav Slyesarenko, head of the Chernihiv regional administration’s department of construction.

Recalling the gruelling 38 days that Chernihiv was under siege in 2022, Oleksandr Lomako, who was deputy mayor of the northern city and now serves as acting mayor, said it was crucial to build defences not only on the current frontline, but also in areas close to the Russian border.

“In those days we were nearly encircled. Every day we were attacked. We lived without water, without electricity, without heating,” he said.

Now, with Russian troops on the march and Ukrainian leaders and experts warning that Vladimir Putin could look to launch another large-scale offensive in late spring or summer, people are anxious and want better defences built quickly, Lomako said.

“Our concrete factories have been very busy building these obstacles,” he added.

Anti-tank bulwarks, the so-called dragon’s teeth, are installed
Anti-tank bulwarks, the so-called dragon’s teeth, are installed to form a defensive line in the Kharkiv region © Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images

Chernihiv region’s budget for defences in 2023 was around $7.6mn, said Slyesarenko. But this year it has already received about $20.5mn for the construction of the first phase of new fortifications that will be finished by end of spring, he said. More will be provided for the second phase later this year, bringing the total spent on defences in Chernihiv region alone in 2024 to about $40.7mn.

These new defences are similar to Russia’s fortifications built in late 2022 and early 2023 that thwarted Ukraine’s much-vaunted counteroffensive. 

It was only after trying and failing to break through those fortified defences last year that Ukraine was “convinced . . . it would be worthwhile for us to do something similar”, said Yevhen Dykyi, a former company commander.

Map and satellite imagery showing multi-layered Russian defences south of Robotyne

Dmytro Lykhoviy, a spokesperson for the military in the east, said that some of these new defences were being constructed in the area west of Avdiivka, where Ukrainian troops were forced to retreat and are now digging in to hold back Russia’s advancing forces.

On a hillside to the west of Bakhmut, the strategic town of Chasiv Yar was also being fortified, according to Illia Yevlash, a Ukrainian military spokesperson. If captured, Chasiv Yar would allow Russian forces a launch pad to attack the important garrison cities of Slovyansk, Kramatorsk and Kostyantynivka. 

But the Ukrainians remain hopeful that they can halt their enemy’s progress. Andriy Cherniak of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency (GUR) said that despite Russia’s recent battlefield successes, it currently has the ability to make only tactical gains of a few kilometres a day.

The problems plaguing both sides included “tired troops, lack of weapons and ammunition”, Cherniak said. 

Still, experts say Russia’s problems are less severe than Ukraine’s, as it maintains the upper hand in both manpower and weaponry.

Lieutenant General Oleksandr Pavliuk, the recently appointed commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said Russia is throwing newly mobilised soldiers without any training into battle west of Avdiivka, as well as the Lyman and Kupyansk areas further north, to overwhelm Ukrainian troops.

“Brutal battles take place every day, but our guys are holding on,” he said. “I think we will stabilise the situation in the near future and do everything to . . . regain the initiative.”

Additional reporting by Ben Hall in Chernihiv, Isobel Koshiw in Kyiv and Sam Learner in New York


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