Live updates from Ukraine: As war weighs on Russia, Putin hands out benefits
BELOKHOROVKE, Ukraine – On the riverbank, the scene of chaos unfolded under a scorching spring sun: blown up tanks, the detritus of pontoon bridges, heaps of branches torn off by explosions and the bodies of Russian soldiers, some in half buried in mud.
In the forest, a short walk revealed pieces of torn Russian military uniforms hanging from the trees, an ominous reminder of the troops who died violently here.
The failed river crossing that took place there for several days in early May was one of the deadliest engagements of the war for the Russian army. His forces had sought to surround Ukrainian soldiers in the nearby town of Sievierodonetsk – but instead they surrounded themselves, hemmed in by the river and a Ukrainian front line. At least 400 Russian soldiers died, mostly from artillery attacks.
As war descends on the rolling plains and forests of eastern Ukraine, troop maneuvers have largely turned into entrapment attempts. But as the deadly encounter on the bridge illustrates, the tactic carries serious risks.
After failing to capture major cities such as the Ukrainian capital, kyiv, or to cut off the entire Black Sea coast, the Russian army attempted a major encirclement of Ukrainian troops to the east. This effort seems difficult now that Ukraine has blocked a main line of advance, near the town of Izium.
Thus, the immediate objective of the Russian forces became a smaller encirclement of Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost city of the Donbass region still under Ukrainian control. Artillery shelling by Russian troops from three sides has ravaged the town, cutting off water and electricity and killing at least six people over the past day.
The Russian strategy was to use the blunt instrument of its army’s vast artillery to pound the Ukrainian forces, making further gains in the Luhansk region of Donbass. Military analysts and Western intelligence officials believe Moscow’s forces would face brutal urban fighting if they attempted to fully capture Sievierodonetsk, and would struggle to mount an offensive deeper inside the Ukraine.
Encirclement is a heartbreaking prospect for soldiers.
“I try not to think about it,” said Pvt. Ivan Sichkar, a Ukrainian soldier overseeing the destruction of the encircled Russian force. “If I think I’m surrounded, there’s no time left to do anything else.”
The reshaped Russian aim concentrated the battle on a 75-mile thin front in the Donbass. It seeks to advance from both north and south to close the only remaining supply line for Ukraine in the city of Sievierodonetsk.
On Tuesday, the Russian army advanced from the south, forcing Ukrainian troops to withdraw from the small town of Svitlodarsk, lest the Russians envelop the town and trap the soldiers inside. And in its briefing on Wednesday evening, the Ukrainian general staff described the intensification of attacks by Russian helicopters and planes to support ground troops in the east.
With Russia making only tentative progress in Ukraine, President Vladimir V. Putin moved on Wednesday to bolster his support at home, announcing increases in pensions and the minimum wage and taking his first trip to meet soldiers wounded. “They are all heroes,” he said at a military hospital.
Mr Putin also signed a decree opening a fast track to Russian citizenship for Ukrainian residents of areas controlled by the Russian military, a new step towards the annexation of Russian-occupied territory in southeastern Ukraine. .
While Mr Putin tried to reassure ordinary Russians, Ukraine’s Western allies tried to keep the pressure on his government. On Wednesday in Ankara, talks were held between Turkey, Finland and Sweden over Turkish concerns over the two Nordic countries’ bid for NATO membership. At a press conference after five hours of talks, Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said more talks were needed.
“Turkey is not pressed for time,” Kalin said. “It is not possible for a process to continue without addressing Turkey’s security concerns.”
The strategy of encirclement brought considerable political gains to Russia during its long conflict in the region, during which Russian-backed separatists fought Ukrainian forces for eight years before the large-scale invasion of this year. Two ceasefires, known as the Minsk agreements and seen as agreed on terms advantageous to Russia, followed successful Russian encirclements of Ukrainian troops in the east in 2014 and 2015.
But in Belokhorovke, a small mining town on the banks of the Seversky Donets River, the tables were turned earlier this month, at least temporarily slowing the Russian advance.
Ukrainian soldiers who fought in the battle began calling the site “the ear” for a lobe-shaped loop in the river where the fiercest fighting took place. The Ukrainian military escorted New York Times reporters to the site, which sits on a frontline formed in much of the Donbas region by the choppy, fast-flowing river swollen by spring rains.
Sunlight filters through the foliage of a dense, quiet forest on the floodplain of the river, which was the area of destruction for the Ukrainians. Mosquitoes buzz. In places, the smell of rotting corpses is overwhelming.
“The Russian corps start here,” said Private Sichkar as he rounded a bend on a dirt road stretching for about a kilometer through the forest to the edge of the river. Right there, 15 incinerated armored personnel carriers were scattered.
“The Russians wanted a small victory,” Colonel Dmytro Kashenko, the Ukrainian officer who commanded the counterattack on the pontoon bridge, said in an interview. “They tried in kyiv, they tried in Kharkiv and they lost. They were trying to win at least something.
The Seversky Donets River, which cuts a winding path through eastern Ukraine, forms a natural barrier to Russian advances. Suitable sites for pontoon crossings are few, Colonel Kashenko said.
He was ordered to one of the crossings on May 8, after the Russians deployed pontoons and moved soldiers into the forest on the near shore. Ukrainian infantry advanced into the area the next day but were pushed back and suffered casualties, he said.
They then set up a defensive line to lock in the Russians as they crossed their pontoon bridge and rained artillery fire on the area. They also set out to destroy the bridge by placing floating mines upstream, allowing the current to carry them to the Russian pontoons, which proved an effective tactic. Ukrainian forces blew up four separate bridges at the crossing site.
The Russians hastily laid new pontoons and sent in armored vehicles, Colonel Kashenko said, but they were unable to break through the Ukrainian defensive line. Dozens of armored vehicles and infantry soldiers were trapped and mutilated by Ukrainian artillery. The Ukrainians also hit the Russian troops involved in the work of the bridge on the other bank.
The bombardment included some of the first barrages from a newly arrived US artillery gun, the M777, Colonel Kashenko said.
Colonel Kashenko said he had offered enemy forces a chance to surrender, shouting into a loudspeaker: “‘Russians, give up!'” But, he said, “I don’t know s ‘they heard us’.
Some enemy soldiers escaped by swimming across the river, the Ukrainians said. The Ukrainians have not yet recovered the remains of the Russians scattered in the forest.
In the dappled light sifting through the foliage, leftover food and personal items lay: a sleeping bag, bottles of shower gel, cans of beef, a sack of potatoes, Russian tea bags, flip flops.
Ukrainian soldiers found a certificate for a medal awarded to a Russian colonel for his previous combats during the war. It was called a “Military Excellence Award”.
Next to a crippled Russian tank was a cardboard box apparently used to transport supplies. On the box was a strange message for a unit at war: “Always believe that something wonderful is about to happen.
General Philip M. Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, made a distinction between the Ukrainian tactic of targeting Russian armored vehicles and troops with artillery and the Russian shelling of towns and villages.
“Overall, Ukraine is trying to wage a maneuver war to regain territory and cut off supply routes,” Gen Breedlove said. “And Russia is waging more of a hard-fought, attrition-based war.”
Of Russia’s failed pontoon crossing, he said, “The Russians did something wrong that is difficult even if you do it beautifully.”
Maria Varenikova contributed report.