Buoyed by its recent success in retaking the southern city of Kherson, Ukraine has pressed ahead with its counteroffensive in the eastern province of Luhansk, even as winter approaches.
But fighting there over villages and roads outside the Russian-held towns of Svatove and Kreminna has slowed in recent weeks, and military experts say both sides have begun to adjust their approach if the weather worsens.
Each has claimed to have taken territory and repulsed attacks in recent days, although it has not been possible to independently assess the claims.
In the Ukrainian village of Makiivka, direct combat has ended for the time being, but a local official gave an idea of the extent of the destruction: “There is not a single living soul on the streets, and there is almost no surviving house. Not even the cell phone tower survived.”
Ukraine said it had retaken the village near the front line north of Luhansk in recent days, but Serhiy Haidai, the regional military governor, said Russian forces continued to shell it. He posted photos of abandoned and damaged houses and the bodies of some Russian soldiers who died fighting for the village to the messaging app Telegram.
“Ukraine’s continued offensives will become more difficult,” said Michael Kofman, research program leader for Russian studies at the CNA research group. “You will need more time. You will take more ammo. They may get more expensive,” he said on the Brussels Sprouts podcast.
Ukraine has won a string of battlefield victories in recent weeks that have changed the dynamics of the nine-month war. In September it occupied a large part of the territory in Kharkiv in the north-east. It then struck further south and captured the city of Lyman in Donetsk province. Last week his troops triumphantly stormed into the southern city of Kherson.
Military experts say these victories have boosted morale and provided a trustworthy counteroffensive strategy, and that Ukraine will seek to maintain momentum in Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, known collectively as Donbass. In addition, it could now transfer some forces and artillery from the south to its campaign in the east.
Russian commanders increasingly appear to be pursuing a “defensive strategy,” Mr Kofman said. Moscow appears to have improved its ability to align its resources with its military objective, citing a relatively orderly withdrawal of Russian forces from a prominent position on the west bank of the Dnieper River in the Kherson region.
Russia could benefit from the influx of newly mobilized troops and move some of the forces withdrawn from Kherson to the Donbass region. The British Ministry of Defence written down on Friday that Russian forces had dug new trench systems near the Siversky Donets River between Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, suggesting they are making preparations “in case of further major Ukrainian breakthroughs”.
One area in Donbass where Russian forces are most obviously taking the offensive is Bakhmut, a town about 50 miles south of the fighting in the northern Luhansk region. There, Moscow is ramping up an offensive led by the Wagner Group, a private Russian military unit that has close ties to President Vladimir V. Putin.
The battle for the largely deserted city, which sits in Donetsk, has been going on for months and has become a symbol of the Kremlin’s goal, announced in April, to secure the entire Donbass region, although analysts say it has little strategic value offers.
“Reports and messages from the Donetsk region are unchanged,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said in a speech. “Fierce battles continue at the same points as before. We are holding our positions despite dozens of attacks.”