The agony came in waves as the wounded Ukrainian soldier in the back of the ambulance slipped in and out of consciousness. The driver, hurtling past cratered fields on roads thick with mud, was racing to escape Russian artillery fire north of the city of Avdiivka, while hoping he was not spotted by drones.
“They are just razing everything to the ground,” said the driver, Seagull, using only his call-sign in accordance with military protocol. “I have never seen anything like this.”
Russian forces have been staging fierce assaults around Avdiivka for more than a month and have recently launched simultaneous offensives across eastern Ukraine in what military analysts say is a bid to regain the initiative as winter approaches. Ukrainian forces are resisting furiously, while probing for openings in a southern counteroffensive and conducting river crossings near the southern port city of Kherson.
When Ukraine’s top military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, said recently that the war had reached a “stalemate”— with intense and exhausting battles yielding little territorial gains — it created an impression in some quarters that the fighting may have stalled.
But for the Ukrainian soldiers and medics on the front, the violent struggle to stop relentless Russian onslaughts, while fighting to claw back advantageous positions, does not feel the least bit static.
“Of course, it’s getting harder,” said Oleksandr, 52, a medic at the medical stabilization point a few miles from the front. “We understand that it will be longer, harder and there will be more losses.”
Still, he said, there was no choice but to fight so his grandchildren could grow up free from Russian tyranny. “We will stay here as long as necessary,” he said.
And so the fighting rages on, with little territory changing hands while a grim tally of casualties grows larger. Ukrainian forces have mostly thwarted Russia’s attacks, using a combination of drones and cluster munitions to inflict some of the heaviest Russian losses of the war, according to soldiers and military analysts.
But the Russian attacks keep coming, and Ukrainian soldiers, too, are suffering gruesome injuries.
As Seagull pulled the ambulance up to the medical stabilization point, a team of medics waited by canvas stretchers stained a dozen shades of red from the blood of other soldiers. The medics had to move fast; they could be spotted by drones and were still within range of Russian artillery.
“His lower limb bones were shattered by a mine,” said Oleksandr. The team raced to bandage the young soldier and do what it could to ease his pain. Within 15 minutes he was back in the ambulance, speeding to a hospital a safer distance from the front.
“We have more severe injuries, amputations of lower and upper limbs,” Oleksandr said. “This man will be able to keep his leg.”
Another wounded soldier was quickly rushed in. “It is very hard,” said Oleksandr, who was a thoracic surgeon before the war. “We hardly sleep at all.”
As Russia presses fierce offensive operations across eastern Ukraine the Ukrainians have managed to gain a hold on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River across from the city of Kherson, possibly opening a significant new front in the war. The campaigns underscore how precarious the situation remains for both sides.
“The positional war in Ukraine is not a stable stalemate,” Frederick W. Kagan, the director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote this past week.
The balance on the battlefield now, he said an interview, could readily be tipped in either direction by a number of factors: the strategic choices made by Ukraine and Russia, the level of assistance provided by the West and the Kremlin’s willingness to eventually fully mobilize Russian society for war.
“On the one hand, Western arsenals already possess the weaponry necessary to address nearly all the challenges confronting the combatants in Ukraine,” he wrote. “On the other hand, Russia’s full mobilization of its economy and society” could tip the scales in the Kremlin’s favor.
Soldiers in the thick of the fight are keenly aware of how dependent they remain on Western support.
“Ukraine itself is unlikely to be able to do anything to turn the situation around; it’s a question of allies,” said Synoptic, a soldier with the 110th Mechanized Brigade, which has been defending Avdiivka since start of the full-scale war last year.
“It is necessary for us to have an advantage in everything — then a breakthrough is possible,” he said. “We do not have this advantage. They have more aviation, radio reconnaissance, electronic warfare and more people. But even in such conditions Ukraine is doing offensive operations in certain areas.”
The same factors that have kept Ukrainians from making a major breakthrough — dense minefields, withering artillery fire and the widespread deployment of drones that makes large-scale surprise almost impossible — have helped them repel Russian assaults, Ukrainian soldiers said.
“It’s an evolution of warfare,” said Carbonara, another soldier with the 110th. “We start outplaying them, they start outplaying us.”
More than a month after Russia began an offensive to encircle and seize Avdiivka, it is closing in on the sprawling industrial plant on the city’s outskirts. Moscow’s willingness to devote thousands of troops to the effort shows its confidence that Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south has mostly culminated and that it has the forces it needs to repel any new Ukrainian threat.
But the assaults on the city are also notable for the staggering losses its units have suffered.
General Zaluzhny said in a statement last week that Russia had lost over 100 tanks, 250 other armored vehicles, about 50 artillery systems and seven Su-25 aircraft since Oct. 10. He also claimed that Russia had suffered some 10,000 casualties.
“We can conclude now that this is by far the most costly Russian assault, during three weeks, for one city, since the beginning of the war,” GeoConfirmed analysts stated.
Frederick B. Hodges, a retired lieutenant general and the former top U.S. Army commander in Europe, cautioned that it was misleading to gauge Ukraine’s success simply by the territory its forces had gained. He said he was continually struck by “how linear and land-centric some of the observers” of the war remain.
“How telling that after nine years of conflict, two years since Russia’s invasion, with all the advantages the Kremlin has on its side, they can control only around 18 percent of Ukraine,” he said.
But time, like weapons and ammunition, is a strategic commodity, and the Kremlin is clearly hoping it can outlast Ukraine’s Western allies.
More than 90 percent of the approved military funding for Ukraine has been spent, according to the White House, and delays in getting more assistance approved by the U.S. Congress are starting to be felt on the battlefield.
Philip M. Breedlove, a retired U.S. Air Force general and former NATO commander, said, “This war will end exactly how Western policymakers want it to end.”
If the West continued to give the Ukrainians “only what they need to stay on the battlefield rather than what they need to win,” he added, Ukraine would eventually succumb to Russian aggression.
In the meantime, the fighting does not wait. On Thursday and Friday there were more than 130 combat clashes across the country, according the Ukrainian military.
In a dugout hidden in a tree line outside Kupiansk in Ukraine’s northeast — which on a rainy day can be reached only by moving quickly on foot across an open plain charred with the craters of shellfire — Ukrainian soldiers in the 57th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade said the Russian assaults came every day.
They probe in small groups — maybe five or 10 soldiers at a time — and it is the 57th’s job, with the help of surveillance drones, to protect the infantry in the frontline trenches.
Sometimes, said the commander, a 26-year-old senior lieutenant who goes by the call sign Black, the Ukrainians will have to pull back and his job will be to destroy the Ukrainian fortifications so the Russians cannot use them.
“They may be able to move a little bit, but it will be very, very slow,” he said.
On most days, the map will remain mostly unchanged, but keeping the lines from moving requires its own violent dance, one perpetually in danger of being thrown off balance. Explosions echoed around the dugout every 30 seconds.
“It can seem boring for people, watching, waiting, seeing no change,” Black said. “But they have no idea how hard it is just to hold the line.”
“It sucks,” he said. “You feel like a constant target.”
Nataliia Novosolova and Anastasia Kuznietsova contributed reporting.