Ukraine’s top commander says eastern frontline has ‘significantly worsened’

Ukraine’s top commander warned that his outmanned and outgunned army is struggling to halt a multipronged and intensifying Russian offensive, as Kyiv pleads with western partners for more air defences and a critical military aid package remains stalled in the US Congress.

“The situation on the eastern front has significantly worsened in recent days,” Ukrainian commander-in-chief Oleksandr Syrsky wrote on Telegram during a visit to the eastern Donetsk region on Saturday.

He said a “significant intensification of the enemy’s offensive actions” along the 1,000km southeastern frontline was a direct result of Russian President Vladimir Putin becoming emboldened following his recent re-election. 

Ukrainian and western officials have told the Financial Times that Russia may be gearing up for a large-scale attack in late spring or summer in hopes of capturing more of the regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. The Kremlin partly occupies these areas, which Putin illegally claimed to have annexed in September 2022. 

Officials in Kyiv are also concerned that Moscow might be planning an assault on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city in the north-east. It is mobilising hundreds of thousands of forces and pummelling the city with rockets in preparation.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy this week warned of his country’s diminishing air defence capabilities after massive Russian missile and drones strikes hit Ukrainian energy infrastructure.

Ukrainian officials have asked western partners for more Patriot and SAMP/T air defence systems and munitions but were rebuffed.

“The enemy is actively attacking our positions in the Lyman [and] Bakhmut directions with assault groups and the support of armoured vehicles,” Syrsky said, referring to strategically important areas of eastern Ukraine. “In the Pokrovsk direction, it is trying to break through our defences using dozens of tanks and [infantry fighting vehicles].”

Syrsky said the “warm, dry weather, which has made most of the open areas of the terrain accessible to tanks” has aided Russia’s advance. 

Russia’s main effort is focused around the mining city of Chasiv Yar, which sits atop a hill just 15km west of Bakhmut, the city destroyed and occupied by Russian soldiers and Wagner mercenaries nearly a year ago after a grinding 11-month fight.

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Videos shared on Telegram by Russian military bloggers showed “glide bombs” and heavy artillery pounding Ukrainian positions and flattening apartment buildings in Chasiv Yar.

“This will likely be an important battle. Chasiv Yar is located on defensible high ground,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia programme. “If Russia takes the city, they could potentially increase the rate of advance deeper into Donetsk [region] as part of an expected summer offensive.”

Yuriy Fedorenko, commander of the “Achilles” drone battalion, told the Financial Times last week that Ukrainian troops were outgunned by at least five artillery shells to one but had no choice except to fight.

Speaking near Chasiv Yar, he said losing the town would allow Russian troops “fire control” of the nearby strategic cities of Kostyantynivka, Druzhkivka and Kramatorsk and give them a foothold from which they could launch attacks.

Deep State, a Ukrainian analytical group that monitors the battlefield, said on Saturday that Russian troops had reached a canal that separates Chasiv Yar’s eastern and western districts but had not yet crossed it.

The group suggested that a fierce battle for the city loomed, writing that “the coming weeks will bring a lot of unpleasant and difficult news”.

“The enemy is gathering reserves for the Battle of Chasiv Yar,” said Deep State, which is close to Ukraine’s defence ministry.

Lee said that “immediate increased deliveries of ammunition could prove critical” for Ukrainian forces.

Syrsky said he was taking “all the necessary measures” to stabilise the situation and to “increase the effectiveness of our troops’ actions, and inflict maximum losses on enemy units”.

“Despite significant losses the enemy is increasing its efforts by using new units on armoured vehicles, thanks to which it periodically achieves tactical success,” he said.

Syrsky said he had ordered “the most problematic areas of the defence” to be strengthened with air defence and electronic warfare systems. 

“Also, stocks of drones of all types, anti-tank missiles were replenished, additional reserves of forces and means were moved,” he said.

The only way to defeat Russia’s larger and more powerful army and create conditions for seizing the strategic initiative on the battlefield is to achieve technical superiority with “high-tech weapons”, Syrsky said. Those, he suggested, should come from western partners.

Even then, he admitted, Ukraine will still face the challenges of mobilising enough troops for the fight and providing them with sufficient training.

“The second serious problem is to improve the quality of training of military personnel, primarily infantry units, so that they can make maximum use of all the capabilities of military equipment and western weapons,” Syrsky said.

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga

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