LYMAN, Ukraine — Peering through an infrared scope, a Ukrainian soldier noticed some heads poking over a trench a few dozen yards away.
“‘Are there any of our guys in front of us?’” he asked, according to an account of the ensuing firefight by fellow Ukrainian soldiers.
There were not. Two Ukrainians crept forward into the muddy wasteland of artillery craters between the two trench lines outside the eastern city of Lyman, eventually reaching the wreckage of an armored personnel carrier. Using it as cover to shoot from an unexpected angle, they forced the Russians to retreat. When it was over, they found the body of one soldier.
“Every day, sometimes more than once a day, small groups come forward and try to take our positions,” said one of the Ukrainian soldiers who participated in the fight, and who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Diesel, for security reasons.
For months, military analysts have been anticipating that the Russian military, under pressure from President Vladimir V. Putin, would seek to regain momentum in the war as the first anniversary approached. A recent series of attacks along the front lines in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine were at first regarded as exploratory thrusts. But increasingly, they are seen as the best the exhausted Russian forces can manage.
“Russia’s big new offensive is underway,” said Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, in an interview last week with the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine. “But going in a way that not everyone can even notice it.”
A year into the war in Ukraine, the Russian military has suffered staggering losses — as many as 200,000 troops killed or wounded, Western officials say, and thousands of tanks and armored vehicles destroyed or captured by Ukraine. Russia is running low on artillery shells and cruise missiles, and is having trouble replenishing its stocks because of Western sanctions. Many of its most elite, best-trained and experienced units have been decimated, left in a shambles that experts say will probably take years, rather than months, to recover from.
In their places, Russia is being forced to rely on tens of thousands of newly conscripted soldiers rushed to the front with little time for instruction. Their inexperience was evident to Diesel from what he saw on the battlefield. “By how they move,” he said, “I see they are not professional.”
Experts are growing increasingly doubtful that Russia will offer much more of a threat in its latest offensive than what Diesel and his mates have been seeing for about a month now.
The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based analytical group, said the Russian assault near Lyman had already entered its most intensive phase, without Russia winning any territorial gains.
Russia “likely lacks sufficient uncommitted reserves to dramatically increase the scale or intensity” in the winter, the group said in a recent note.
Plagued by a dearth of tanks and other vehicles, Russia’s offensive will “very likely culminate well short of its objectives,” the analysts concluded.
Things were far different at the war’s outset, when military experts and Mr. Putin, apparently, expected Ukraine to fold within days under the Russian onslaught. But after staggering initially, the Ukrainians found their footing, drove the Russians away from the capital and halted their advances elsewhere. In early September, they launched a speedy counteroffensive that recaptured huge chunks of territory in the northeast and around Kherson city in the south.
Desperate to reverse its fortunes, the Kremlin responded in September by announcing a mobilization of 300,000 men and, according to Western intelligence agencies, preparing for an offensive aimed at capturing all of the Donbas, an area comprising the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.
But a month into the campaign, Russian forces have barely budged. Seesaw fighting by small units in fields and pine forests east of Lyman is typical of the daily swirl of violence along the front line.
Ukraine’s strategy has been to absorb the blows, inflicting as many casualties as possible while readying a counterattack in the spring with a new arsenal of Western-provided weapons, including tanks.
President Volodymyr Zelensky has described the static fighting as fierce but to Ukraine’s advantage as it is inflicts heavy losses on the Russian Army. “The more losses there, in Donbas,” he said in a nightly address last week, “the sooner we can end this war with Ukraine’s victory.”
It would be a mistake to dismiss the Russian military as a completely spent force, analysts say. It still has thousands of tanks and artillery pieces and the capacity to churn out more, and the generals could be holding troops in reserves for a spring offensive. And it has a manpower advantage, though in grinding warfare led by artillery barrages that is hardly decisive.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this month that the Russian offensive, while “struggling mightily,” still posed a risk through sheer numbers.
“Putin did a call-up of several hundred thousand, and those folks have been arriving on the battlefield,” he said. “So they do have numbers, and whether or not they’re successful in pressing the fight, that remains to be seen.”
An exception has been the battle for Bakhmut, where Russian forces, swelled by recruits from Russian prisons fighting in the Wagner paramilitary group, have closed in on the city, taking key villages to its north and now threatening the only remaining access road for Ukrainian troops to resupply forces.
But even there, the Russian military has failed to take the city after months of bloody fighting, and a bitter feud recently erupted in public between the leader of the Wagner Group and those of the regular military forces.
In the current offensive, Russia has chosen to try half a dozen attacks all along the Donbas front, rather than concentrate on a single assault. Yet, the opening attack, a tank assault on the coal mining city of Vuhledar, ended in failure, with dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers blown up by mines or abandoned in fields.
The destruction recalled the scenes of burned and destroyed Russian armor that characterized the fighting around Kyiv last winter. “Their mistake is they don’t learn from their mistakes,” Diesel said.
Out on the rolling plains of the Donbas on a recent morning, sunshine glistened off snowy fields and hoarfrost-covered trees, and a drive toward the front line passed the burned hulks of tanks from the fighting last fall.
After a year of combat and destruction in the region, the two armies are fighting mostly over ruins in a depopulated region. Ukrainian officials estimate that 80 percent of the inhabitants on their side of the front have fled. Most towns and villages lie empty and forlorn.
The village of Bohorodychne was eerily silent, but for the water dripping through the tangled ruins of what had been homes.
The village changed hands twice last summer.
Still, a half-dozen residents have returned, saying they are confident Ukraine’s army can hold the front line this time.
“When you see somebody else’s house destroyed, it’s one thing,” said Yuriy Ponurenko, who was beginning to rebuild his house. “When you see your own home, it’s something else.”
Looting has become a problem, said Andriy Kondratyuk, a volunteer from a nearby city who visits to repair the church. Cars, laden with refrigerators and other supplies, sometimes bump along potholed roads, he said.
At the front, the landscape is a blighted panorama of mud, shell craters and trees hacked into pieces by explosions. In areas of open fields, Russia has been attacking with infantry supported by armored vehicles. In the pine forests farther north, the combat is mostly between infantry units, soldiers say.
Sarmite Cirule, a volunteer medic from Latvia staffing a position outside of Lyman, said Ukrainian troops had also taken heavy casualties in the month since the offensive began, even as they had successfully defended the strategic city. “We are mainly holding our positions,” she said, “and a lot of guys are killed and wounded.”
Diesel, interviewed having tea in an abandoned house, away from the front and decorated with children’s drawings sent to cheer soldiers, said Russian attacks gained strength in January.
“It’s like two different wars,” he said of the intensity of the fighting after the Russian offensive began and as new Russian recruits poured into the front.
Still, he recalled multiple bungles. Recently, he said, he opened fire on two Russian soldiers walking casually in a field, apparently unaware they were within range of Ukrainian lines.
“They looked like they were out picking mushrooms,” he said. Both managed to run away.
“They are probing for weak spots in small groups,” he said. “They have quantity and we have spirit.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Lyman.
The New York Times