Like a crack in the line it opened the way for the Russians

Thunderous explosions shook the ground as the Ukrainian crew prepared to maneuver their American-made Bradley fighting vehicle out of camouflage and, once again, into fire.

The squad commander, a sergeant with the callsign Lawyer, was nervously scanning the sky. “If we are seen, the KABs will come,” he said, referring to the one-ton bombs that Russia has used to hit Ukraine's most valuable armor and defenses.

What began as a small Russian offensive in the small town of Ocheretyne was turning into a substantial breakthrough, threatening to unhinge Ukrainian lines across a large stretch of the Eastern Front. The crew's mission was to help contain the breach: protect the infantry soldiers with fewer men and weapons, evacuate the wounded, and use the Bradley's powerful 25-millimeter cannon against as many Russians as possible.

But the 28-ton vehicle was soon spotted. Mortars and rockets exploded all around and the gunner was seriously injured, said the commander, identified only by name according to military protocol.

A combat assignment had turned into a mission to save his comrade. The gunner survived and is now recovering, the lawyer said a few days later. But the Russians have gained ground and continue to try to move forward.

Ukraine is more vulnerable than at any time since the first harrowing weeks of the 2022 invasion, said Ukrainian soldiers and commanders from a number of brigades interviewed in recent weeks. Russia is trying to exploit this window of opportunity, intensifying its attacks in the east and now threatening to open a new front by attacking Ukrainian positions along the northern border outside the city of Kharkiv.

Months of delays in American assistance, a spiraling death toll, and a severe ammunition shortage have taken a heavy toll, evident in the exhausted expressions and weary voices of soldiers engaged in daily combat.

“Frankly, I have fears,” said Lt. Col. Oleksandr Voloshyn, 57, veteran commander of the 59th Motorized Brigade's tank battalion. “Because if I don't have bullets, if I don't have men, if I don't have equipment for my men to fight with …,” he said, trailing off. “That's all.”

The sudden Russian advance through Ocheretyne, about nine miles northwest of Avdiivka, in late April, illustrates how even a small crack in the line can have cascading effects, as already tense platoons risk being flanked and surrounded and other units rush to plug the line. violation.

“It's like you hear a knock in the engine of your car and you keep driving it,” said Lt. Oleksandr Shyrshyn, 29, deputy battalion commander of the 47th Mechanized Brigade. “The car works, but at some point it will stop. Then you'll end up spending even more resources restoring it.”

“Here too there are errors that do not appear critical,” he said. “But now they have led to the need to stabilize the situation. And it is uncertain where this stabilization will take place.”

“Any event that you didn't foresee can completely turn your situation upside down,” Lieutenant Shyrshyn said. “And that's what happened to Ocheretyne.”

After Avdiivka fell to Russian forces in February, the small town of Ochertyne served as a Ukrainian military strongpoint along a highway. Most of the 3,000 residents had fled. Abandoned skyscrapers and other urban infrastructure provided good defensive positions and for two months the situation remained relatively stable.

But then something went wrong.

The Russians appeared so suddenly in the battered streets around Ivan Vivsianyk's house in late April that, at first glance, he mistook them for Ukrainian soldiers. When they asked for his passport, the 88-year-old knew Ocheretyne's defense had collapsed.

“I thought our soldiers would come and knock them out,” he said in an interview after making what he called a harrowing walk across the front line to escape. “But that didn't happen.”

Three weeks later, what began as a small Russian advance has turned into a roughly 15-square-mile bulge that is complicating the defense of the Donetsk region.

Extending the bulge further north could give the Russians a chance to bypass some of the strongest Ukrainian fortifications in the east that have held for years. Russia can now also undertake a new line of attack directed at Konstiantynivka, a city that represents a logistical hub for Ukrainian forces.

The Kremlin's attempt to advance from one ruined village to another was captured in hours of combat footage shared by Ukrainian brigades at the front.

Russian infantry cross minefields on foot and use dirt bikes and dune buggies to try to outrun Ukrainian explosive drones. They attack in armored columns of various sizes, with large assaults often led by tanks covered in huge metal barracks and equipped with sophisticated electronic warfare equipment to protect against drones. Western observers have nicknamed them “turtle tanks.” Ukrainians call them “wundervaflia,” which combines the German word for wonder with the Ukrainian word for waffle.

“We allow their infantry to get closer to us, which creates closer contact and direct firefights,” Lt. Shyrshyn said. “Therefore, our losses are increasing.”

The Russians also pay a staggering price for every step forward. In April, approximately 899 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded per day. The British military intelligence agency recently reported.

Despite having deployed so many soldiers into the battle, in April the Russians occupied an area that covered only about 30 square miles. according to military analysts. And capturing Ukraine's last fortress cities in the Donbas – urban centers like Kramatorsk and Pokrovsk – would almost certainly involve long and bloody battles.

However, the Russian advance in recent weeks in the east and northeast is starting to alter the geometry of the front in dangerous ways.

“Look at the map, where we are and where Ocheretyne is,” said Colonel Voloshyn, commander of the tank battalion. He studied the terrain as he prepared to set out on a mission to target a house where 20 Russians were thought to be hiding. “Now I can assume that they can just go around us to the left, to the right. They are tactically successful, they have equipment, men, bullets. So we can expect anything.”

The lack of dramatic changes at the front for more than a year has obscured the grueling positional fighting needed to maintain that precarious balance. In a war where a battle over a single treeline can rage for weeks, the sudden Russian offensive in the area around Ocherytne was the most dangerous kind of problem: fast, deep and surprising.

There is a bitter debate over who was responsible for the failure to maintain the line.

The Deep State Telegram channel, which has close ties to the Ukrainian military, accused the 115th Mechanized Brigade of leaving critical positions without orders, allowing the Russians to infiltrate and storm the settlement.

The brigade issued a furious denial, saying its soldiers were outnumbered by as many as 15 to one and held out as long as they could under ferocious shelling.

“We want to emphasize that no regular units of the 115th Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine left or fled the positions,” the brigade said. A special military commission was established to determine exactly what happened.

Soldiers familiar with combat were reluctant to publicly criticize a neighboring brigade and said a variety of problems — from poor communication to being largely outgunned — likely played a role.

Lt. Shyrshyn of the 47th, who held positions alongside the 115th, wouldn't speculate on what went wrong, but said the consequences would be immediate: It soon became clear that the 47th would have to fall back or risk encirclement and catastrophic losses.

“The Russians sensed weakness in that direction as they exploited cracks to get behind the Ukrainian soldiers,” he said. “Then we lost Ocheretyne, then Novobakhmutivka, then Soloviove.”

The Ukrainian high command does not like to give up any territory, the lieutenant said, adding that “it is very complicated to discuss with them and explain why it is not good to hold this position.”

Lieutenant Shyrshyn hopes the situation will improve as Western weapons arrive but until then, he said, “we will continue to die, we will continue to lose territory.”

“The question is whether it will be slow and defensible,” he said. “Or quickly and senselessly.”

Liubov Sholudko contributed reporting from eastern Ukraine. Anastasia Kuznetsova AND Natalia Novosova contributed to the research.

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