Three Russian attack helicopters swooped in low over the city of Kreminna, strafing Ukrainian frontline positions just outside the city. Russian drones circled overhead while Moscow’s ground forces fired heavy machine guns to flush out Ukrainians from foxholes hidden in the dappled light of the pine forest.
As exploding artillery shells shook the ground around him on Saturday morning, Vlad, a 27-year-old Ukrainian drone operator, spotted a Russian armored personnel carrier bringing more troops to the battle. It was a possible prelude, he said, to another assault.
“They are constantly attacking us,” said Lt. Col. Matviychuk Oleh, a 49-year-old battalion commander with Ukraine’s 100th Territorial Defense Brigade. “They are looking for a weak place and then they storm.”
Along the vast 600-mile front line that cuts a scar across eastern and southern Ukraine, Russian forces are mostly on the defensive, hoping that their air superiority and the millions of mines they have planted will protect the fortified positions. So far they have been able to prevent a major Ukrainian breakthrough.
But in northeastern Ukraine, along a roughly 60-mile front that runs around the towns of Kupiansk, Svatove and Kreminna, the Russians are not laying back: With heavy artillery, drones and waves of ground assaults, they are once again mounting sustained offensive operations.
“On some days they shoot without stopping,” Lieutenant Colonel Oleh said.
The intensity of the fighting has ebbed and flowed in this corner of Ukraine for nearly a year and the seesaw battles have resulted in only minor shifts in frontline positions. The largely static lines on a map, however, can obscure the violence playing out in the pine forests and the toll that comes from the incessant hurling of ammunition at the enemy.
Oleg, a 50-year-old doctor who is working as a frontline medic with the 100th Brigade, said that after weeks of seeing almost no wounded soldiers, he is now racing to Ukrainian positions to tend to wounds every day — a testament to a more aggressive Russian assault.
In recent days, the Russians have claimed small breakthroughs up and down the lines from Kupiansk to Kreminna 60 miles to the south. Kyiv is sending experienced units to reinforce the lines in the area. Ukrainian soldiers near the front say that Russian gains have been marginal and that they have counterattacked and regained some lost territory.
Analysts from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington based think-tank, have documented only marginal gains for Russian forces in the area in recent weeks.
Still, the British military intelligence agency said the “renewed activity” in the northeast highlights the region’s importance to the Kremlin, given that it comes at the same time Russia is facing “significant pressure” in the south.
Lieutenant Colonel Oleh’s soldiers are responsible for about a three-mile stretch of the front near the town of Kreminna, which is still controlled by the Russians. He said that the Russians are now firing two to three times as many shells as his mortar teams, which are averaging around 50 per day.
The battles fit a pattern Ukrainians have encountered many times as Russia tries to grind out small gains relying on great volumes of personnel and weaponry.
Lieutenant Colonel Oleh said that before they storm a position, the Russians will launch scores of rockets and mortars at Ukrainian positions aiming to obliterate dugouts and leave the defenders who survive in a “shellshocked” state.
“Then they send the storming units of 10-12 people,” he said. “We call them ‘Z’ units, meaning that they come from penal colonies.”
“They are not professional, just fodder,” he said.
It’s a tactic reminiscent of Russia’s assault on Bakhmut, the city it captured in the spring, but has been mostly absent in the defensive posture it has adopted since then.
In the second line of Russian trenches, Lieutenant Colonel Oleh said, are blocking units made up of Chechen soldiers who threaten to shoot those who retreat, he said.
And behind them are the more professional Russian soldiers. Fortunately, Ukrainian soldiers said, the Russians are new to the area and the attacks are more chaotic than coordinated.
The condition of the forests testify to the scorched earth tactics. The normally lush carpet of pine needles has been burned away by blazes set off by Russian shelling and the use of incendiary munitions. Tree trunks are charred black at a nearly uniform height — just as high as the flames from brush fires can lick — before regaining their natural color beneath a canopy of green.
On Saturday, a Ukrainian mortar team using the coordinates provided by the drone operators hit a Soviet-era BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle heading its way. At least six Russian soldiers poured out as it burned and the drone team watched as a Russian air assault vehicle was dispatched to evacuate the survivors. The Ukrainians fired again. This time they missed and the Russians escaped.
“I can’t say how many Russians were killed but enough that they stopped the assault,” Vlad said.
It was not the first time they attacked in the past two weeks and he was sure it would not be the last.
The Russians would like to move back to the Oskil River that runs through the city of Kupiansk, some 50 miles northwest of Kreminna, in order to create a buffer zone around the Luhansk region. Similarly, about 60 miles to the south, they have waged repeated battles in the direction of Lyman, which Ukraine recaptured in October, trying to gain a strategic foothold for further advances into the Donbas.
Ukrainian leaders acknowledge that they are moving slower than they would like in the south, and every meter of land reclaimed is paid for with Ukrainian blood.
Ukrainian forces are also moving forward around the fringes of the ruined city of Bakhmut, less than 50 miles south of Kreminna.
With their assaults in the northeast, the Russians may be trying to draw Ukrainian forces away from that battle as they struggle to hold onto the city they spent more than 10 months destroying before finally capturing this spring.
Lieutenant Colonel Oleh noted that the Kremlin has never given up its ambition of conquering the entire eastern Donbas region. Breaking through the Ukrainian lines in the north and moving toward the city of Lyman would provide the Kremlin with something it could portray as a victory.
By contrast, if the Ukrainians can hold their lines and ultimately advance in the direction of Kreminna, they could sever a critical Russian logistical line and try to sweep around the backside of Bakhmut, Ukrainian commanders said.
As the fighting has intensified along the front from Kreminna to Kupiansk, the Ukrainian military command has dispatched units from its most highly regarded brigades to retake lost ground and reinforce defensive lines, according to soldiers from the units recently sent there.
The New York Times accompanied one of these units last Friday to a so-called “zero-line” position, only a few hundred feet from the Russians, on the condition the unit not be named, the location not revealed and the soldiers’ faces not be shown.
“It is difficult, very difficult,” said a unit commander, Oleksandr, 35. His brigade has been fighting without a break since the full-scale invasion last year. He was part of the assault team that secured positions only 800 meters from Kreminna’s outskirts in January.
The Russians attacked that position 18 times before an artillery shell exploded only a few feet away from him, he said. He was buried in dirt and remembers the frantic efforts of his fellow soldiers to dig him out. He passed out as the medics inserted a tube into his body.
The Ukrainians eventually lost the position and Oleksandr lost part of his lung. After he recovered, he returned to the front lines.
“They wanted to send me to the rear,” he said. “But my brothers in arms are here.”
Speaking outside his sleeping quarters deep in the forest, he said only eight of the 160 soldiers in his company when Russia invaded are still fighting. Some were killed, some were injured and some were simply exhausted.
The biggest challenge at the moment, he said, was for commanders to quickly assess who can handle the stresses of combat. The heart might be willing, he said, but not everyone is built for war.
“People come in with different psychological conditions,” he said. “Some are frightened by the shelling and start to go crazy.”
Still, he believes the problems plaguing the Russians run deeper.
Sometimes when the Russians try to advance, they get lost in the forest and stumble upon Ukrainian positions. And when they are forced to retreat, they just scatter since they have not been instructed how to pull back, he said.
The Ukrainians would like to stage their own advance. But for now, offensive operations must wait. In this corner of Ukraine, they are once again being forced to defend their land.
Evelina Riabenko contributed reporting.