Ukraine-Russia War News: Live Updates

BELOKHOROVKE, Ukraine — Out on the riverbank, under a scorching spring sun, the scene of chaos unfolded: blown up tanks, the debris of pontoon bridges, piles of tree branches sheared off by explosions, and the bodies of Russian soldiers, some half-buried in dirt.

A short walk in the forest revealed bits of torn Russian military uniforms hanging from trees, an eerie reminder of the troops who died violently here.

The failed river crossing, which took place at this point over several days in early May, was one of the deadliest engagements of the war for the Russian army. His forces had attempted to surround Ukrainian soldiers in the nearby town of Sievierodonetsk – but were instead surrounded themselves, hemmed in by the river and a Ukrainian front line. At least 400 Russian soldiers died, mostly from artillery attacks.

As the war grinds across the hilly plains and forests of eastern Ukraine, maneuvering troops has evolved in large part into attempts to set a trap. But as the deadly encounter at the bridge showed, the tactic carries great risks.

After the Russian military failed to capture major cities such as the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, or secede the entire Black Sea coast, the Russian military attempted a large encirclement of Ukrainian troops to the east. That effort seems difficult now that Ukraine has blocked a main route of the advance near the town of Izyum.

So the immediate goal of Russian forces is a smaller encirclement of Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost city in the Donbass region that is still under Ukrainian control. Artillery fire from Russian troops approaching from three sides has devastated the city, cutting off water and electricity and killing at least six people over the past day.

The Russian strategy was to use the blunt instrument of its army’s massive artillery to pound Ukrainian forces and make increasing gains in the Luhansk region of Donbass. Military analysts and Western intelligence officials believe that Moscow forces would face a brutal urban battle if they attempted to fully capture Sievierodonetsk and that they would have difficulty launching an offensive deeper into Ukraine’s interior.

The encirclement is a harrowing prospect for soldiers.

“I’m trying not to think about it,” said Pvt. Ivan Sichkar, a Ukrainian soldier overseeing the destruction of the encircled Russian force. “When I think about being surrounded, I don’t have time to do anything else.”

The Russians’ redesigned gate has focused the fighting on a narrow 75-mile front in the Donbas. It is attempting to advance from both the north and south to shut down the only remaining supply line to Ukraine into the city of Sieverodonetsk.

On Tuesday, the Russian army advanced from the south and forced Ukrainian troops to retreat from the small town of Svitlodarsk lest the Russians encircle the city and trap soldiers inside. And in its Wednesday evening briefing, Ukraine’s general staff described increased attacks by Russian helicopters and jets in support of ground forces in the east.

With Russia making slow progress in Ukraine, President Vladimir V Putin moved on Wednesday to bolster domestic support, announced pension increases and minimum wages and made his first trip to meet with wounded soldiers. “They are all heroes,” he said in a military hospital.

Mr Putin also signed a decree giving Ukrainian residents of areas controlled by the Russian military a fast track to Russian citizenship, a further step towards the annexation of territories in south-eastern Ukraine that Russia has occupied.

As Mr Putin tried to calm down ordinary Russians, Ukraine’s western allies tried to keep the pressure on his government. Talks between Turkey, Finland and Sweden were held in Ankara on Wednesday over Turkish concerns over the two Nordic countries’ NATO membership bid. At a press conference after five hours of negotiations, Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said further talks were needed.

“Turkey is not pressed for time,” said Mr. Kalin. “It is not possible for any process to proceed without addressing Turkey’s security concerns.”

The strategy of encirclement has yielded wide-ranging political gains for Russia over the course of its prolonged conflict in the region, in which Russian-backed separatists fought Ukrainian forces for eight years prior to this year’s full-scale invasion. Two ceasefires known as the Minsk Accords, signed on terms favorable to Russia, followed successful Russian encirclement of Ukrainian troops in the east in 2014 and 2015.

But in Belokhorovke, a tiny coal-mining town on the banks of the Seversky Donets River, the tables were turned earlier this month, slowing the Russian advance, at least temporarily.

Ukrainian soldiers who fought in the battle called the place “the Ear” for a lobe-like loop in the river where the fiercest fighting took place. The Ukrainian military escorted New York Times reporters to the site, which lies on a front line formed across much of the Donbass region by the raging, fast-flowing river swollen by the spring rains.

Sunlight filters through the foliage of a dense, silent forest in the floodplain of the river, the Ukrainians’ death zone. mosquitoes buzz. In places, the smell of decaying corpses is overpowering.

“The Russian bodies start here,” Private Sichkar said as he rounded a bend in a dirt road that stretched about a mile through the forest to the riverbank. At this one spot alone, 15 cremated armored personnel carriers lay scattered around.

“The Russians wanted a small victory,” Colonel Dmytro Kashenko, the Ukrainian officer who commanded the counterattack on the pontoon bridge, said in an interview. “They tried in Kyiv, they tried in Kharkiv and they lost. They tried to win at least something.”

The Seversky Donets River, meandering through eastern Ukraine, forms a natural barrier to Russia’s advance. There are few suitable places for pontoon crossings, Colonel Kashenko said.

He was ordered to one of the crossings on May 8 after the Russians deployed pontoons and transferred soldiers to the forest on the near bank. Ukrainian infantry advanced into the area the next day but were repulsed and suffered casualties, he said.

They then set up a line of defenses to encircle the Russians as they crossed their pontoon bridge and rained artillery barrage on the area. They also set about destroying the bridge by placing floating mines upstream to allow the current to carry them to the Russians’ pontoons, which proved to be an effective tactic. Ukrainian forces blew up four separate bridges at the crossing point.

The Russians hastily laid new pontoons and sent armored vehicles across, Colonel Kaschenko said, but they failed to break through the Ukrainian defenses. Dozens of armored vehicles and infantrymen were trapped and mauled by Ukrainian artillery. The Ukrainians also met Russian troops involved in bridge work on the other bank.

The bombardment included some of the first barrages from a newly arrived American artillery gun, the M777, Col. Kashenko said.


Colonel Kashenko said he offered enemy forces a chance to surrender, shouting into a loudspeaker, “Russians, surrender!” But he said, “I don’t know if they heard us.”

Some enemy soldiers escaped by swimming across the river, the Ukrainians said. The Ukrainians have yet to collect the remains of the Russians scattered in the forest.

Discarded groceries and personal items lay scattered in the dappled light filtering through the leaves: a sleeping bag, bottles of shower gel, cans of beef, a bag of potatoes, Russian tea bags, flip-fop sandals.

Ukrainian soldiers found a certificate for a medal awarded to a Russian colonel for earlier combat in the war. It has been dubbed the “Award of Military Excellence”.

Next to an inoperable Russian tank was a cardboard box apparently used to transport supplies. On the box was a strange message for a unit at war: “Always believe that something wonderful will happen.”

General Philip M. Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, distinguished between Ukrainian tactics of targeting artillery at Russian armored vehicles and troops and Russian bombardment of towns and cities.

“Broadly speaking, Ukraine is attempting to wage a war of maneuvers to reclaim territory and cut off supply routes,” General Breedlove said. “And Russia is waging more of an attrition-based, attrition-based war.”

Of Russia’s botched pontoon crossing, he said, “The Russians did something badly, which is difficult even if you do it great.”

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.

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