While Russia relies on mass destruction to advance a mile or two a day in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian soldiers fighting some 400 miles to the south have been working steadily to push away from Russian front positions across a vast expanse of grasslands and swamps.
Fighting is fierce on both fronts, and both campaigns are critical to understanding where the war stands, as concerns grow that a protracted conflict could bring new economic costs to Ukraine’s allies.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said last week that he thought the West would wait outside. The Russian leader rarely acknowledges Russian losses or defeats, and military analysts say his army has questioned whether it can sustain a broad offensive once its campaign to capture Luhansk province ends.
Russia has committed the bulk of its combat forces to the capture of Lisysansk, the last urban center in Luhansk still controlled by the Ukrainian government, which could fall any day.
Russia has sent thousands of additional troops to the east in recent weeks to bolster its offensive in neighboring Donetsk province, where it will again try to overwhelm Ukrainian positions with a large arsenal of artillery, missiles and air power. Ground forces are reduced.
It is an open question how far each army has been reduced after more than four months of fighting. Kyiv publishes only broad estimates of its losses, and Moscow says almost nothing.
British defense chief Ben Wallace said last week that 25,000 Russian soldiers had been killed since the war began. The figure, which cannot be independently confirmed, is the highest estimate given by a senior Western official. The Ukrainian government admits it has suffered staggering losses, with hundreds of casualties every day.
Although Russia was able to push deep into Donetsk, its military struggled to sustain an offensive in several parts of the country. Roughly the size of Texas.
Thursday’s Russian defeat on Snake Island in the Black Sea, where its troops were forced to retreat under constant Ukrainian bombardment, underscored how much the Russians rely on their superiority in heavy weapons.
Russia’s withdrawal from the island was expected to undermine Moscow’s control of key grain shipping routes from Odessa. When a Russian missile hit a residential complex and recreation center near Odessa on Friday, killing at least 21 people, Ukrainians saw it as an act of revenge.
“This is an act of revenge for the successful liberation of Snake Island,” First Deputy Interior Minister Yevan Yenin said in an interview. He scoffed at Russian claims that leaving the island was a gesture of “good will”.
With its forces stretched thin, Russia has been trying for months to bolster its defenses in the south, where Ukraine has retaken parts of the Kherson region west of the Dnieper river that Russia captured early in the war.
The Ukrainian military said the Russians had been driven from several perimeter defense positions and that Ukrainian troops were operating within 20 miles of Kherson. Senior U.S. Defense Department officials said last week that the Ukrainians are not only retaking villages, but also showing the ability to hold on to recaptured land.
But military analysts have warned that despite Ukrainian gains in the south, they are unlikely to launch a broad offensive and move quickly on Kherson City, the only provincial capital to fall to the Russians.
At the moment, Ukraine’s forces are conducting a counter-offensive to the north and south of the city. At the same time, insurgents inside Kherson have stepped up a campaign to assassinate Russian proxy leaders and help the Ukrainian military engage in sabotage operations and fire directly at Russian targets.
On Thursday, the Ukrainian military’s Southern Command said its forces had fired missile and artillery strikes at 150 targets, killing more than 40 Russian soldiers and destroying Russian artillery and armor. The claims could not be independently confirmed, but data from NASA satellites indicated activity along the Southern Front.