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On Ukraine Front Line in Donetsk, Small Victories Carry a Heavy Toll

DONETSK PROVINCE, Ukraine — Red flames crackled in the golden wheat field, the target of Russian artillery just minutes earlier. Nearby, the commander of a Ukrainian frontline unit was finishing his lunch of pasta from a tin bowl. As more incoming shells exploded in the fields, his men took cover in their bunkers.

Life on the front lines in the eastern Donetsk region has seen little letup in recent weeks. Ukrainian soldiers serving there say they live under almost constant Russian artillery and aerial bombardment. The fields and hedgerows around them are charred and smoldering. Their days and nights are interspersed with the sharp bangs of outgoing Ukrainian artillery and the deeper, rumbling bursts of incoming fire.

“It’s tense,” said the commander, Samson, 55, who, like most members of the Ukrainian military, asked to be identified by only his code name in accord with military protocol. “There is daily mortar fire, airplanes, helicopters, ‘Grads.’ They have a lot of ammunition.” Grad, meaning hail, is the Russian acronym for a commonly used multiple rocket launcher system.

After beginning an offensive against Ukraine’s east in April, Russia made progress at a steady if grueling pace. But since seizing control of Luhansk Province two weeks ago, the Russians have lost some of that momentum. Ukrainian troops, forced to move to second- and third-line defensive positions, have mostly held their ground despite the onslaught of mortar shells and missiles.

The grinding battle in Donetsk comes amid ominous signs that Russia’s war in Ukraine is intensifying on other fronts.

After a series of deadly Russian missile attacks on civilian targets in recent days, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is pleading with his people to heed air-raid sirens and seek shelter. In some cities, Ukrainians have become not just complacent about the danger but too weary of war to react to the threat of attacks.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the Ukrainians say the success or failure of their fight will depend on whether they receive more and better arms. But they say they are determined to try to hold every inch of what is still theirs in Donetsk Province, despite heavy losses, and dismissed the suggestion that they cede territory or give up the fight as ludicrous. They have the conviction of their cause, they said, while the Russians lack purpose.

“There is no choice,” Serhii, 44, a career soldier with one unit, said. “We are protecting our country.”

Dug in in the woods and villages, Ukrainian troops fought off a Russian attack in early July, knocking out a group of tanks in a battle in the farming village of Verkhnokamianske, according to several accounts. The blow stalled the Russian advance and brought a lull in places on the front lines, soldiers said. Military doctors said they saw a drop in casualties arriving from the front for several days last week after the battle.

Elsewhere, soldiers and officials recounted other successes. The Seversky Donetsk River and the swampy land to the north of the province remain a natural barrier. The deputy commander of a National Guard unit said his men prevented an attempted river crossing by Russian troops last week, destroying tanks and a pontoon bridge.

Another volunteer unit said they had stopped Russian tanks, which were already advancing south of the river, from also encroaching from the northwest.

Both sides depend on long-range artillery and missile strikes. Russia has intensified attacks on the next line of cities that stand in their sights in the eastern part of the province — Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut, among others — and the Ukrainians have hit ammunition stores deep inside Russian-controlled territory with the HIMARS rocket system newly received from the United States.

On the ground, the battle is for villages on the approaches to the main cities. There, Russia has made little progress, taking only one village south of Bakhmut in two weeks of fighting the length of the front line, which stretches for hundreds of miles.

Serhiy Haidai, the head of the Ukrainian civil-military administration of neighboring Luhansk Province, which is now in Russian hands, confirmed that the Russians had suffered several reverses on the battlefield in the last two weeks and in their rear bases from the added artillery systems, but said the fighting did not represent a tipping point in Ukraine’s favor.

“I do not think this is the moment,” he said. “We have Western artillery, and thank you for that, but it is not yet enough to turn the progress of events.”

Privately, Ukrainian officers serving in eastern Ukraine said they thought the West was intentionally supplying only enough assistance and matériel to slow the Russian offensive and not to defeat it.

Nevertheless, despite punishing battles and heavy casualties defending the last cities of Luhansk Province through May and June, Ukrainian troops said they were holding their new positions and not ready to give up.

A unit that fought for 18 days in the city of Sievierodonetsk, which fell to the Russians near the end of June, was resting in a camp in the woods some miles back from the front line, recuperating since they were ordered to pull out of the city in the last week of June.

They were in rough shape when they came out, a press officer with the unit said. “They did not want to pull out, and the fighting was also tough,” he said. “They are doing better now.”

The men themselves seemed to have accepted their lot.

“We were ready to fight till the end,” said their commander, Serhii, 52. “But I did not feel bad leaving. It was better to save lives.” He said he had served 34 years, first in the Soviet Army and then in the Ukrainian armed forces, but he said he had learned from NATO officers the importance of keeping his men alive.

The Russians do not have the same concern for their men, he said: “They have quantity. They get hit and they just throw in another battalion.”

Serhii, the 44-year-old career soldier in his unit, said it had made sense to pull back to stronger defenses in the surrounding countryside where they could hit Russian armor more easily with artillery.

“We moved out of the city to draw the Russians into the fields, where it is harder for them to fight,” he said. The Russians were sending forward reconnaissance teams and diversionary groups, but the Ukrainians were up to their tactics, he said. “We have learned how to fight.”

Kum, 47, deputy commander of a National Guard unit, who has spent months fighting in eastern Ukraine, displayed a similarly unflinching attitude. His battalion had taken losses but seen no desertions, he said. The men are still committed to the fight, including on the front line, he said, which Ukrainians refer to as ground zero.

“Lots of people are tired, but everyone knows we need to keep going,” he said. “If someone is really tired, we try to give him some rest. But all of the men are on the zero line and still fighting.”

“We are military,” he said. “If we are told to hold something, we will hold it.” But he grimaced when asked if Ukraine could hold the rest of Donetsk Province in the face of a full-scale Russian offensive. His face seemed to say no.

On the rolling hills in the north of the province, the wheat fields have burned in wide stretches and smoke drifted over the woodland where Russian cluster and incendiary bombs had struck on a morning last week.

Almost everyone in a volunteer unit guarding the area had suffered a concussion in recent weeks, said one soldier, Oksana, 27. She and her husband were training as criminal lawyers before the democracy protests of 2013 and joined up to fight in 2014 when Russia first annexed Crimea and Russian-backed separatists seized power in eastern Ukraine.

The unit successfully blocked a Russian attack at the end of June, said her husband, Stanislav, 35, who was commander of a forward defensive position.

“Early morning I had 33 people. By early evening I had lost 19,” he said. “It was very hard — they were firing on our positions nonstop for six hours.” Twice Russian tanks tried to flank their positions, but they spotted them and trained artillery fire on them, forcing the Russians back, he said.

The unit captured one vehicle and found Russian documents, including a list of the troops in the fighting group it had belonged to. “Most of them were marked with 200,” Oksana said, a term in the Russian Army that indicates someone who has died in action. Other names were marked with the word “Otkaz,” or “Refusal,” which Oksana said could mean the soldiers had refused to fight or take part in some operation.

They lost a good friend in the battle, Stanislav said. And some of their volunteers had quit, or simply not returned from a rest period after experiencing life at ground zero, Oksana added. They had a five-week trial period for that purpose, which was good, she said. “They come here and test themselves.”

But there are signs that Ukrainian forces are depleted and increasingly resigned to an unequal fight.

Samson, the commander hunkered down near the burning wheat fields, is a recent recruit, as is his assistant. A German-language teacher in civilian life, Samson enlisted in April. Beside him, Chorny, 30, a driver, was drafted in May.

“They fire more often than us because they have more ammunition,” Samson said of the Russians. “They have large stocks from the Soviet Union. They were more prepared for war than we are.”

He continued, “We will not let them pass, but it depends on the help we get and the quantity of weapons.”

Mark Landler contributed reporting from London and Kamila Hrabchuk from the Donetsk region.

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