As Russia cemented its control over the southern port city of Mariupol this week after a 12-week brutal offensive, attacks have swept across much of the east.
While no end in sight, these maps explain how the terrain, geography, and logistics are shaping the battle for the main cities, where the outcome of the battle can be decided.
The Ukrainians were adept at defending cities and forests in the first phase of the war, the occupation of Kyiv. But compared to the northwest, the eastern parts of the country are relatively open – especially the vast plains from Crimea – which makes it difficult to defend against advancing tanks.
“It’s easy to maneuver,” said Gustav Grassell, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. It is difficult for Ukraine to fight “because it is all flat, all visible.”
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Russian forces have already gained control of a band land along the southern coast and are fighting to take the mountains above it. But the southeastern front lines have almost come to a standstill.
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The idea of an easily transcendent plain does not tell the whole story.
The terrain is not uniform, and some are easier to protect: the northern part of Donetsk points to towns and small towns, and small rivers and mountains flow through the region, with forests on the banks of the Donetsk River, which flows from Russia. As they did around Kiev, Ukrainian forces destroyed the bridge, hampering Russia’s progress, according to Mason Clark, led by the Russian team for the Study of the War Institute.
Russian forces suffered heavy casualties last week when a Ukrainian attack destroyed a pontoon bridge that they were trying to cross the Donetsk River.
Russian tanks and armored vehicles have deep reservoirs, but spring rains by June could produce mud that slows them down, according to Dimitro Diadin, an environmental scientist at the OM Bekatov National University of Urban Economy in Kharkiv.
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In the Donbass and Kharkiv regions, up to two-thirds of the land is used for agriculture, according to Diadin. Clark said clusters of trees around farms in northern Donetsk provided cover to Ukrainian forces armed with anti-tank weapons such as javelins and NLAWs to attack Russian convoys. According to Michael Kaufman, director of Russia’s study program at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis firm in Arlington, Va.
In 2014, Moscow-backed separatists declared “People’s Republic” in large parts of Donetsk and Luhansk on the Russian border. Known as the coal country and industrial hub of Ukraine, the predominantly Russian-speaking regions have been on Russia’s crosshairs for years.
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A “line of communication” longer than 260 miles divides government-controlled and separatist-controlled areas, separating families and communities. More than 14,000 people have been killed in fighting since 2014 earlier this year.
Ukrainian troops have spent eight years building defenses along the line.
Russian forces have shelled the length of the line of contact in recent weeks, but they have fought to get it across Donetsk.
Russia has said it wants to occupy all Donbass territories, whose borders extend beyond the main line of communication.
Russian forces have made significant progress in Luhansk. According to the Institute for the Study of War Clark, at least 90 percent of the region is in Russian hands.
The finalization of the occupation of the port city of Mariupol this week opened a strategic land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the peninsula Russia was annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Russia’s success in Mariupol has given its forces access to a key highway and liberated units to help it attack cities. In the Zaporizhia region.
But Ukraine still holds a significant part of Donetsk. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters in early May that its forces were “putting up a strong resistance.”
The Institute for the Study of War estimates that until May 15, the success of Ukraine’s defense system in Donetsk, combined with the strength of the Russian war, may have prompted Russia to focus on occupying the rest of Luhansk without trying to encircle Russia. Ukrainian troops in Donbass.
A city with about 45,000 inhabitants, Izim is located on the banks of the Donetsk River, the highest point in the Kharkiv region bordering Donetsk. This is the “gate of Donbass,” a City Council member told The Post last month. Its location on a hill allows the forces that control it to have a clear view of the roads and surrounding villages.
After three weeks of fierce fighting, on April 1, Russian forces captured the city. Since then, it has served as a springboard for Russian forces trying to push south.
“If the Russians continue to succeed, Izyum will be the most important point in their Donbas campaign,” Clark said.
Russia in April withdrew some of its forces from northeastern Ukraine and concentrated in the Izim region. But here, the Russians seem to be confined to the streets. Clark said they descended down three streets outside the Ezium, towards the town of Sloviansk, Barvinkov, and to an unspecified target in the west.
Russian forces were reported to have suffered heavy casualties along the Izim axis in early May, and the Sloviansk route was relatively stagnant.
They made further advances towards Barvinkov, reaching the outskirts of the city. Occupying Barvinkov, about 30 miles southwest of Izyum, would help Russian forces cut a Ukrainian rail supply line further east into Sloviansk, according to Kaufman.
But the lack of manpower has created a significant constraint for Russia. Ukraine’s counter-attack north of Kharkiv exacerbated the problem, forcing Russia to withdraw troops from the Izim area. Ukrainian officials said on Saturday that the country’s forces were launching another counter-attack near Izim.
At the moment, Clark said, Russia’s efforts in the Ezium area could be aimed at preventing Ukraine from regaining territory.
Russia has learned to build solid supply lines after logistical problems prevented the first phase of the attack. In the war in the East, efforts to secure such routes partly explained the crawling pace of Russian progress.
Russian supply lines from Belgorod and Valuiki regions of Russia to support its activities outside Izyum.
Line from Izyum
Ukraine’s counter-attack this month has pushed Russian troops to the Russian border. It is unlikely that the Ukrainians will be able to cut off Russian supply lines immediately, Clark said, but counter-attacks “would certainly be a threat to the Russians.”
The Ukrainian side must also be concerned about supplies, even within its own borders, as the railroad is under attack from Russia.
Three cities on the way to Russia
To conquer Donbass, Kaufman said, Russia would have to take three major cities: Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk. “These are small towns, but they’re still cities – and they’re not tanks,” he said. It means urban war, a Russian weakness.
The cities are near the border between Donetsk and Luhansk, near the Donetsk River.
Ukrainian forces are concentrated in Severodonetsk and the neighboring town of Lisichansk, and they are trying to retain a line west of the city of Lyman. The Russian troops continued firing and slowly advanced towards Lehman.
Occupying the Lyman area enabled Russian forces to advance from east to Sloviansk, as well as from the Izim area to the west. Clark said taking Slovyansk would cut off Ukrainian fighters defending against Severodonetsk’s attack.
Sloviansk and Kramatorsk are railway hubs, and Kramatorsk has a large hospital. But gaining control of the two cities “is probably out of the question [Russia’s] Current capacity, ”Clark said.
As the war approached, the Ukrainians set up protected artillery battlefields in the wooded areas around Kramatorsk and dug trenches along the country’s roads.
According to analysts, Russia has enough vehicles and weapons, although Ukrainian fighters rely on foreign weapons, they are smarter and more motivated.
“This is going to be a much longer war than the power war, which the Russians probably expected to achieve,” said Amel Kotlarski, a senior analyst at the open source Defense Intelligence Agency Jens.
Map Source: May 16 provided by the Critical Threats Project of the Territorial Control Data Institute for the Study of War, AEI. Landcover data through the Copernicus program and the Global Land Service.
Sammy Westfall and Dalton Bennett contributed to this report.