A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 27, 2024

Determined Ukrainian Defenders Hold Chasiv Yar, Awaiting Renewed US Aid

Ukrainian units control the high ground west of Bakhmut on which Chasiv Yar sits and that provides a tactical advantage. They have held out against ferocious Russian assaults, mostly with drones and tenacious defense. 

The promise of renewed US military aid has buoyed spirits and fueled their determination to hold on. JL 

Ian Lovett and Nikita Nikolaienko report in the Wall Street Journal:

Located on a ridge overlooking Bakhmut, (scene of) the bloodiest battle of the war, Chasiv Yar is a valuable strategic prize. "It's the high ground." Ukrainian commanders say they can hold off the Russians. Attacking, as the Russians are doing now, is always more costly than defending. To get to Chasiv Yar, Russian troops would have to cross a canal that runs through the east of the city, then make it up a steep hill. Ukrainian troops say that many problems will be solved once their stocks of artillery ammunition are replenished. With more artillery cover, they will also take fewer casualties

The explosion lit up the night sky, sending flames hundreds of feet into the air. Another huge blast followed a few seconds later, then a third. The booms carried for miles across the fields east of Chasiv Yar, and a few moments later, a jet ripped through the sky.

Russian planes were hitting this eastern city—now Moscow’s primary target in Ukraine—with glide bombs, each carrying at least a half-ton of explosives and capable of collapsing a building in a single strike. 

Ukrainian forces, outgunned and outmanned, are struggling to hold Chasiv Yar long enough for fresh weaponry from the U.S. to arrive.

Located on a ridge overlooking Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that Moscow took last year after the bloodiest battle of the war, Chasiv Yar is a valuable strategic prize. If Ukraine loses the city, its remaining strongholds in the eastern Donetsk region would become prime targets for an expected Russian offensive this summer.

“It’s the high ground,” Yuriy Fedorenko, commander of the Achilles attack-drone battalion in Ukraine’s 92nd Assault Brigade, which is working around Chasiv Yar. “If the enemy captured Chasiv Yar, they’d have fire control of Druzhkivka, Kramatorsk and Kostyantynivka,” naming three of the largest settlements in the region still under Ukrainian control.

The situation for Ukrainian troops around Chasiv Yar is punishing.

For each artillery round Ukraine fires, Russia fires 10, and soldiers in the area say that ratio is getting worse. At the front line, which winds through the fields and villages east of Chasiv Yar, the Russians are taking heavy casualties but steadily advancing. They have now reached the eastern edge of the city.

Inside the city, Moscow is destroying the buildings where Ukrainians might take cover, the same strategy Russia used in Bakhmut except the glide bombs are allowing them to do it far faster in Chasiv Yar.

“Glide bombs are incredibly destructive, even in a well-fortified area,” said Mick Ryan, a military strategist and retired major general in the Australian army.

Ukrainian commanders say they can still hold off the Russians. Attacking, as the Russians are doing now, is always more costly than defending. To get to Chasiv Yar, Russian troops would have to cross a canal that runs through the east of the city, then make it up a steep hill.

The arms the U.S. is poised to provide would give Ukraine a better chance of holding on to its territory. The House and Senate have both approved billions in aid for Ukraine, and once President Biden signs the bill, artillery ammunition could start arriving in Ukraine within days. Additional air-defense systems could potentially shoot down Russian jets firing glide bombs—heavy, Soviet-era bombs that Moscow has modified by adding cheap wings and satellite navigation systems so they can be fired from further away rather than dropped. 

But Kyiv’s military faces other problems that American aid can’t fix. 

Ukraine’s forces are threadbare after months of fighting without break, and Kyiv is short on men to send in their place. As a result, deployments at the front that are supposed to be five days can last 10 or 15 days.

A 29-year-old soldier, who goes by the call sign Nemo, said his last shift at the front had gone on for 10 days, during which the Russians advanced three-quarters of a mile. They usually moved forward at dawn and dusk, when drones can’t see as well but night-vision goggles aren’t necessary, and took heavy losses for the territory they gained. When the Russians find a Ukrainian foxhole, he said, they hammer it until the Ukrainians have to retreat. 

“They can shell a tree line just for fun,” he said. “We can only respond when we’re 100% sure of the target.” 

Kypish, a 38-year-old soldier from another brigade, said the Russians hadn’t advanced in his area of the front line last week. Still, his unit was taking a beating: Out of 110 men in his company, only 35 were currently able to fight, with the rest recovering from injuries. Four of the six men in the trench with him were wounded by a grenade dropped from a Russian drone.

“Even our commanders are in the positions with us because we’re short of men,” he said. 

As Kypish spoke, in the basement of a building in Chasiv Yar, an alarm began howling, indicating there was a drone nearby. He grabbed a shotgun and ran outside. The day before, he said, he had hit a Russian attack drone with birdshot. He pointed to a gash in the building’s exterior, where the drone had crashed and broken apart.

Hardly a building remains undamaged in Chasiv Yar. Soldiers have taken up residence in basements and stacked the stairs with bottles of water, firewood and packs of dog food for local mutts. Curtains hang over the doors to block explosive drones.

A thin coating of dust kicked up by the near-constant explosions covers almost everything in Chasiv Yar, coloring even the blooming lilacs an ashen gray. Along one of the city’s main streets, once a bucolic tree-lined avenue, a statue of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky has been sliced in two by an explosion. 

A glide bomb recently fell near the local humanitarian-aid center, leaving a 30-foot-wide crater outside. Vitaliy Yeremenko, a 59-year-old former construction worker turned humanitarian volunteer, said he was on a bed inside the center when the bomb hit. The blast wave knocked him to the floor.

“The walls were shaking so much I thought the building might collapse,” he said. “We run from one basement to another. That’s how we live.” 

About 700 civilians remain in the city, according to Ukrainian officials, down from a prewar population of 12,000. Around 100 come every day to the center to drink tea, eat porridge and charge their phones, Yeremenko said.

Mykola Mohylevskiy fields calls from residents looking for evacuations, most of them elderly people without means to leave on their own. He did the same work in Bakhmut last year, but said Chasiv Yar is now more hazardous because of the constant buzz of aerial drones. 

“Two months ago, I could just drive into the city, park the car, walk around,” he said. “Now, you have to move fast. There’s a huge threat drones will destroy the vehicle…Sometimes they even attack civilians.” 

Military vehicles working around Chasiv Yar are now equipped with electronic jammers that disrupt communication between the drones and the pilots. Even so, the vehicles stop several miles short of the front line to drop off soldiers, who hike in on foot, carrying supplies on their backs.

Serhiy Suprun, the 48-year-old commander of a medical team from the 41st Mechanized Brigade, said one soldier recently had to wait four days for an evacuation: The risk of drone attacks was too high to drive in. In the interim, a Ukrainian drone team dropped a package with painkillers and antibiotics for the soldier. 

“It was impossible to approach,” Suprun said. “There’s a drone chasing every soldier. They react to the slightest movement.” 

Ukrainians have their own drone army, which has made resupply and casualty evacuations similarly difficult for Russians. The Wall Street Journal watched live as several drone teams conducted successful strikes on Russian foxholes. Larger drones also drop mines in fields.

But Ukraine lacks artillery, which can do far more damage than drones. One 50-year-old evacuation driver, who goes by the call sign Chizhik, said that when he drives toward the front to pick up wounded, he radios to request artillery cover. Often, he said, the answer is no. “They say, ‘Sorry, we have limited shells,’” he said. 

Ukrainian troops, commanders and storm troopers alike say that many of these problems will be solved once their stocks of artillery ammunition are replenished. With more artillery cover, they say, they will also take fewer casualties, which will help ease the manpower shortage. 

However, military analysts said fighting to hold the city, as Ukraine did with Bakhmut for months last year, would nonetheless come at a price. Russia, an autocratic country with a population four times Ukraine’s, can absorb casualties, both politically and militarily, more easily.

“They’re going to have to make some difficult political decisions,” Ryan, the retired major general in the Australian army, said of Ukrainian leaders. “Do you hold on to territory and give up lots of lives? Or do you give up territory and save your army? That’s the kind of position they’re in.”


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