Russia Presses Ahead With Offensive Push in Eastern Ukraine

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By Ketrin Agustine

Russia Presses Ahead With Offensive Push in Eastern Ukraine

As winter approaches, Russian and Ukrainian forces are both trying to seize the initiative along different parts of the front.

Russia has dispatched thousands of soldiers backed by heavy armor and artillery to try to drive Ukrainians from deeply entrenched positions in eastern Ukraine, in what military analysts said is the Kremlin’s largest offensive push since its failed campaign last winter.

The willingness to throw its reserves into costly operations around the eastern cities of Avdiivka and Kupiansk suggests that the Kremlin is confident in its hold on southern positions still under Ukrainian assault, according to military analysts.

It is unclear how effective the new Russian assaults have been. The British military defense intelligence agency said Moscow’s troops had suffered heavy losses and it appeared that “entrenched Ukrainian forces have so far likely held back the Russian advance.”

Still, the agency called the efforts to advance “the most significant offensive operation undertaken by Russia since January 2023” and analysts said the assaults posed an ongoing threat to Ukrainian forces across the east.

At the same time, the Ukrainian military said on Tuesday that its soldiers continued to grind a slow and bloody path forward.

Although neither side has managed to achieve a major breakthrough in months, the battles raging across Ukraine come at a critical point. As winter approaches, along with its freezing weather, Russian and Ukrainian forces are each trying to seize the initiative at different parts of the front.

Moscow’s intensified assault on Avdiivka has been going on for a week and has involved “multiple armored battalions, which are attempting to envelop the town,” the British military defense intelligence agency said. Avdiivka sits in a pocket surrounded by Russian positions on all sides but the west.

A couple evacuating a village a few miles from Avdiivka on Monday.Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Ukraine’s top military command said on Tuesday that it had repelled more than 10 attacks over the past day around Avdiivka, compared with twice as many a few days ago. Geolocated footage analyzed by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, showed that Russia had gained a few square miles of territory on the flanks of Avdiivka so far.

The institute noted that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, in an interview with the Russian state broadcaster Rossiya on Sunday, characterized Russian offensive operations along the frontline as “active defense.” The institute said the comment could be an attempt “to temper expectations of significant Russian advances.”

Avdiivka, which is just a few miles north of the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk, is protected by a network of trenches and bunkers. The town has been a linchpin of regional defenses since 2014, when Russias forces first seized large swaths of eastern Ukraine.

Its strategic location as a bulge in Russian-controlled territory allows Ukrainian forces to threaten Moscow’s logistical lines in the area.

Mykola Bielieskov, a military analyst at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a Ukrainian government research group, said that Russian forces were trying to claw back territory there to fulfill Moscow’s goal of seizing the entire Donetsk region, which it claimed to have annexed but does not fully control. To do so, Mr. Bielieskov said, Russian forces need to seize Avdiivka.

“The enemy sees Avdiivka as an opportunity to gain a significant victory and turn the tide of hostilities,” Col. Oleksandr Shtupun, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said last week. “Today, the capture or encirclement of Avdiivka could be the utmost achievement for them at this stage.”

Russia’s control of Avdiivka would also deal a symbolic blow to Kyiv. Over time, the town, just like Bakhmut, has become synonymous with Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s onslaught.

It withstood eight years of low-intensity warfare in eastern Ukraine before the full-scale invasion began last year, and then a year and a half of massive Russian assaults that have nearly reduced the city to rubble.

But Mr. Bielieskov said capturing Avdiivka would prove difficult given its heavily fortified positions. Noting slow progress and high casualties among Moscow’s troops, Britain’s defense ministry said that “successfully clearing Avdiivka looks increasingly unlikely in the short term.”

A Soviet-era war memorial amid debris from recent shelling in Novoselivka Persha, in eastern Ukraine.Nicole Tung for The New York Times

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