Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)

Northeaste­rn front could decide new battle lines

- By Samya Kullab

KUPIANSK, UKRAINE >> A tank carrying Ukrainian infantry speeds toward a target position marked with a metal sheet. The soldiers climb down, hurl grenades and unleash a crackle of machine-gun fire. Then they repeat the moves, getting faster with every iteration.

It’s only a drill. But with the sounds of the real war rumbling just 4 miles away, this daily training underscore­s the high stakes on Ukraine’s northeaste­rn front, where military officials say a much-anticipate­d Russian offensive has already started, with fighting that could determine the next phase of the conflict.

Time is of the essence here, so speed and cohesion is the goal of the exercises that combine reserve tank and the infantry assault units.

“Synchroniz­ation will be important to halt Russian offensives toward Ukrainian defensive lines,” said Col. Petro Skyba, a battalion commander of the 3rd Separate Tank Iron Brigade.

Grueling artillery battles have stepped up in recent weeks in the vicinity of Kupiansk, a strategic town on the eastern edge of Kharkiv province by the banks of the Oskil River.

The Russian attacks are part of an intensifyi­ng push to capture the entire industrial heartland known as the Donbas, which includes the Donetsk and the Luhansk provinces. It would be a badly needed victory for the Kremlin as the war enters its second year.

Triumph in Kupiansk could decide future lines of attack for both sides: If Russia succeeds in pushing Ukrainian forces west of the river, it would clear the path for a significan­t offensive farther south where the administra­tive borders of Luhansk and Donestk meet. If the Ukrainian defense holds up, it could reveal Russian vulnerabil­ities and enable a counteroff­ensive.

Increasing efforts

“The enemy is constantly increasing its efforts, but our troops are also increasing their efforts there, making timely replacemen­ts and holding the defense,” said Brig. Gen. Dmytro Krasylnyko­v, commander of the joint group of troops in the Kharkiv region.

Across the towns and villages in the path of the fighting, homes have been razed by constant Russian bombardmen­t, with some residences hit repeatedly. Civilians wait in the cold for food and line up to receive rations of milk and materials to cover shattered windows.

“We don’t have anything to do with this war, so why do we pay the price?” asked Oleksandr Luzhan, whose mother’s house was struck twice.

On the battlefiel­d, Ukrainian soldiers put a rocket launcher in the fighting position, aiming the weapons in line with coordinate­s sent by their commanders. They wait for the final order.

Seconds turn to minutes. Snow falls silently in thick wet clumps by a shriveled sunflower field.

“Fire!” A salvo of rockets blasts into the sky toward Russian targets, often armored personnel carriers or tanks.

To escape any counteratt­ack, the servicemen of the Ukraine army’s 14th Brigade pack up and leave, trundling away in the Soviet-era BM-21 “Grad.”

Along the northeast front, there are no quick wins, said Vitaly, the operation’s gunner, who gave only his first name in line with Ukrainian military protocols. “It’s war — someone retreats, someone advances. Every day there is a change of position.”

Russia ramped up attacks earlier in February after deploying three major divisions to the area. Fighting is focused northeast of Kupiansk, where Kremlin troops have gone on the offensive with marginal territoria­l gains. Ukrainian fortificat­ions have so far deterred major advances, Ukrainian senior military officials said.

Twin goals

For Russia, the Kupiansk operation serves two aims:

• Dislodging Ukrainian forces from settlement­s along the provincial borders would enable the capture of Luhansk province.

• Pushing back Ukrainian troops west of the Oskil River and locking them there would create a new defensive line and prevent deployment­s to the critical Svatove-Kreminna line farther south, where a separate Russian offensive is underway to capture the Donestk region by reclaiming abandoned posts in Lyman.

Svatove, which was occupied by Moscow last spring, is 37 miles southeast of Kupianske.

Ukrainian forces are counting on improving coordinati­on between infantry and tank units to deprive Russia of the opportunit­y to breach Ukrainian lines. Ukrainian forces still control settlement­s inside Luhansk near the border with Kharkiv.

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