Russian and Ukrainian forces appear to be settling into a gruelling and deadly stalemate in Ukraine’s east, amid warnings from a senior US military official that neither side can win in the present circumstances.
Despite an announcement from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, that Ukrainian counter-offensives around the city of Kharkiv were pushing invading Russian forces back, Ukrainian successes appeared to be confined for now to the far north-eastern and south-western flanks of the 300-mile frontline.
Further south-east, along the frontline in the Donbas region, Russian forces have deployed a relentless artillery barrage and managed to take some territory.
Ukrainian forces announced their retreat from the city of Popasna at the weekend. Severodonetsk, the easternmost city still held by Ukrainian forces, is virtually surrounded and the last parts of Luhansk region not under Russian control are within range of its heavy artillery.
In towns and cities near the frontline, constant Russian shelling and bomb and missile attacks on civilian targets have largely emptied the streets. They include a weekend strike on a school in Bilohorivka thought to have killed at least 60 people.
The government urged those who could to evacuate areas that may experience heavy fighting, and though tens of thousands of people unable or unwilling to leave are still in their homes, they venture out into the streets only for essential errands.
On Wednesday, rocket strikes hit two districts of Slovyansk city, Vadym Lyakh, head of the city administration, said. Russian forces also shelled civilian buildings in the town of Bakhmut, around 30 miles south, authorities there said.
“The Russians aren’t winning, and the Ukrainians aren’t winning, and we’re at a bit of a stalemate here,” said Lt Gen Scott Berrier, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, who gave evidence on Tuesday alongside Avril Haines, the US national intelligence director, to the Senate armed forces committee.
The assessment was delivered as the Russian military claimed its forces had advanced as far as the border between the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, potentially edging to securing control of the Donbas region despite losing ground around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
Zelenskiy said in his nightly address on Tuesday that he had “good news” from Kharkiv. “The occupiers are gradually being pushed away,” he said. “I am grateful to all our defenders who are holding the line and demonstrating truly superhuman strength to drive out the army of invaders.”
The tenuous nature of the advances was highlighted by the head of the Kharkiv regional state administration, Oleg Synegubov, who conceded that, while the four villages had been retaken, fierce battles were still raging.
Tetiana Apatchenko, a spokesperson for the 92nd Separate Mechanised Brigade, the main Ukrainian force in the area, confirmed that Ukrainian troops had in recent days recaptured the settlements of Cherkaski Tyshky, Ruski Tyshki, Borshchova and Slobozhanske, in a pocket north of Kharkiv.
Russia and Ukraine have made inflated claims about their successes, with assessments from western defence and intelligence officials in recent weeks often painting a more subdued picture.
On Wednesday, the latest update from the UK’s Ministry of Defence pinpointed the continuing struggle for Zmiinyi Island as increasingly crucial for Russian efforts to dominate the Black Sea.
The MoD said: “Fighting continues at Zmiinyi Island, also known as Snake Island, with Russia repeatedly trying to reinforce its exposed garrison located there.
“Ukraine has successfully struck Russian air defences and resupply vessels with Bayraktar drones. Russia’s resupply vessels have minimum protection in the western Black Sea, following the Russian navy’s retreat to Crimea after the loss of the Moskva.
“Russia’s current efforts to augment its forces on Zmiinyi Island offer Ukraine more opportunities to engage Russian troops and ‘attrit materiel’. If Russia consolidates its position on Zmiinyi Island with strategic air defence and coastal defence cruise missiles, they could dominate the north-western Black Sea.”
Recent aerial images from the island following Ukrainian drone attacks showed columns of smoke from Russian positions. A Russian landing craft hit close to the island at the weekend appeared to have been involved in efforts to reinforce Russian troops there.
Graphically underlining the grim nature of the fighting, the press service of the Azov brigade, a Ukrainian unit that has historical far-right affiliations and which is trapped by Russian forces inside the Azovstal steel mill in Mauripol, released images of wounded soldiers, many missing limbs and being cared for in unsanitary conditions.
Warnings of a “prolonged war” not least from Haines in her testimony to Senate members, has come amid a mounting recognition in western capitals that both Moscow and Kyiv are increasingly bound by more maximalist war aims, making a negotiated end to the fighting complicated.
With many analysts viewing any backing down by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, over the refocused Russian campaign in the south and east of the country as political suicide, Kyiv appeared to be insisting that its war aims now included regaining territory lost in 2014.
In an interview with the Financial Times, the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said Ukraine initially believed victory would be the withdrawal of Russian troops to positions they occupied before the invasion.
“Now if we are strong enough on the military front, and we win the battle for Donbas, which will be crucial for the following dynamics of the war, of course the victory for us in this war will be the liberation of the rest of our territories.”