How the Front Line Has Barely Moved in Ukraine This Year
The front line in Ukraine changed little last winter. Russia aimed to capture the entirety of the Donbas, but it only inched forward. Territory Russia gained since Jan. 1
Ukraine has made minimal gains in its counteroffensive. Dense Russian minefields and fortifications have made every attack extremely costly. Territory Ukraine gained since Jan. 1
Despite nine months of bloody fighting, less than 500 square miles of territory have changed hands since the start of the year. A prolonged stalemate could weaken Western support for Ukraine. Territory changed hands since Jan. 1
Both sides started the year with lofty ambitions: Russia wanted to capture the eastern Donbas region, while Ukraine aimed to split Russian forces with an attack in the south.
Neither offensive has gone to plan. The front line, after months of grueling combat and heavy casualties, remains largely unchanged.
Less territory changed hands in August than in any other month of the war, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the Institute for the Study of War. While Ukraine made small gains in the south, Russia took slightly more land overall, mostly in the northeast.
Across the front line, every mile of territory has been a grinding fight, with no repeat of the rapid breakthrough that Kyiv managed in Kharkiv in September last year, when Russia’s defenses collapsed after a surprise Ukrainian counterattack.
Russia and Ukraine have faced similar challenges this year. Both sides are fighting for positions that have remained largely entrenched for months, or even years in some parts of eastern Ukraine. Seasoned troops and commanders who were killed earlier in the war have been replaced with new recruits who often lack sufficient training.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive has struggled to push forward across the wide-open fields in the south. It is facing extensive minefields and hundreds of miles of fortifications — trenches, anti-tank ditches and concrete obstacles — that Russia built last winter to slow Ukrainian vehicles and force them into positions where they could be more easily targeted.
When both sides’ gains are added up, Russia now controls nearly 200 square miles more territory in Ukraine compared with the start of the year.
Rather than seeking rapid gains, the Russian military appears to be comfortable holding the territory it already controls, according to Marina Miron, a postdoctoral researcher in war studies at King’s College London. “It’s not losing anything by not moving forward,” she said.
Russia’s forces outnumber Ukraine’s nearly three to one on the battlefield, and with a larger population to replenish its ranks, Russia could see a prolonged defense as in its interests.
“The whole strategy in Ukraine is for the Russians to let the Ukrainians run against those defenses, kill as many as possible, and destroy as much Western equipment as possible,” she added.
Russia controls about 18 percent of Ukraine — a swath of land larger than Switzerland. This includes Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine, which it has occupied since 2014.
The slowdown comes with huge risks for Ukraine. If it looks unlikely to recapture large areas of the country, Western support could wane, either through lack of political will or unwillingness to donate more weapons, especially given the yearslong wait for deliveries of replacement equipment.
“Russia is trying to wait out until the West turns its back,” said Dr. Miron.
Ukraine continues to battle through Russia’s defenses in the south. Last month it successfully recaptured the village of Robotyne, and in recent days moved armored vehicles past Russia’s main anti-tank defenses near Verbove, about eight miles to the west of Robotyne.
But the clock is ticking for Ukraine’s counteroffensive to make significant territorial gains. Heavy rains are expected next month, and muddy terrain could prevent the use of heavy vehicles, such as the newly arrived U.S. Abrams tanks and the Challenger tanks supplied by Britain. “When there is mud and you have a 75-ton Challenger, it will just sink,” said Dr. Miron.