A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 4, 2024

Why Ukrainian Troops Believe They Can Hold Chasiv Yar

Ukraine finally withdrew from its positions in Bakhmut after ten months of savage fighting. The Ukrainian forces took up prepared positions around Chasiv Yar, which is 5 kilometers to the east. 

But what many fail to understand is that it has taken the Russian military, superior in troop strength and weaponry, almost a year to move those 5 kilometers. That is why Ukrainian troops, though tired, believe in their ability to hold. JL 

Francis Farrell reports in the Kyiv Independent:

With just five kilometers of open ground separating Chasiv Yar and Bakhmut, which Russia took in May last year after 10 months of heavy fighting, the city was always seen to be Moscow’s next target in the sector. Chasiv Yar - located on relative high ground and with a natural defensive barrier in the form of a canal - should be a good fight to take for Kyiv. Russia has  upped the pace of its attacks, looking to exploit what could be a temporary period of enemy weakness as much-needed artillery ammunition is on its way to Ukraine. “Of course we feel an escalation from the Russian side, but we are holding. They are trying to break us, now we need to break them.”

As he creeps between rubble-strewn garages near the central square of Chasiv Yar, the eyes and ears of the reconnaissance commander are glued squarely to the overcast midday sky.

From the east, the unmistakable sounds of heavy fighting roll in without pause: not just artillery fire, but a full orchestra of machine gun and rifle bursts, anti-air cannons, and the occasional Russian airstrike.

Most of that, though, is unfolding at a distance, — around two and a half kilometers away to be precise — where Russian forces pound the residential neighborhood on the edge of the city.

What bothers the commander, 41-year-old Andrii “Yankee,” more are not the sounds of explosions but of propellers; those belonging to the hundreds of drones, enemy and friendly, constantly surveying the battlefield.

“I can’t take you any further,” he says, pointing to a five-story building just 30 meters away.

“Even two days ago you could walk pretty freely between these buildings here. Now it's just a matter of time before they mark us (on the map) and start hitting us with whatever they want, they are really f***ing generous when it comes to that.”

With just five kilometers of open ground separating Chasiv Yar and Bakhmut, which Russia took in May last year after 10 months of heavy fighting, the city was always seen to be Moscow’s next target in the sector.

Two years ago, it was here in Donetsk Oblast that Moscow, having failed to take Kyiv by storm, embarked on its new strategy: to grind the Ukrainian military down through a sheer advantage in soldiers and firepower.

The strategy has stayed the same, and now, it is beginning to pay off: depleted in numbers by the endless positional fighting, overstretched Ukrainian units are beginning to lose ground.

Over March and April, after being held just outside the ruins of Bakhmut for the better part of a year, Russian forces made a string of gains through fields and forests, bringing them up against the first streets of Chasiv Yar.

Kyiv has claimed that over 20,000 Russian troops have been gathered for the offensive on the city, while President Volodymyr Zelensky has suggested that Moscow’s forces have been ordered to take it by Victory Day on May 9.

Technicalities aside, the battle of Chasiv Yar has undoubtedly begun, and the stakes could hardly be higher.

The city is rightly seen as the gateway to the agglomeration of four cities, from Kostiantynivka in the south through Druzhkivka, Kramatorsk, and Sloviansk to the north, which form the backbone of Ukraine’s defense of Donetsk Oblast.

On the map, making a defensive stand in Chasiv Yar — located on relative high ground and with a natural defensive barrier in the form of a canal — should be a good fight to take for Kyiv.

Map of Chasiv Yar and surrounds as of May 1st, 2024. (Francis Farrell / The Kyiv Independent)

Much-needed artillery ammunition, on its way to Ukraine as part of the long-awaited $61 billion U.S. military aid funding package signed by President Joe Biden on April 24, is also poised to lift the defenders’ battlefield fortunes after months of worsening shell hunger.

But with many Ukrainian brigades badly attritted by long periods on the front line without rotation, and the delayed preparation of fortified defensive lines in Donetsk Oblast, it remains unclear how capable Kyiv’s forces are of mounting a solid defense, even in more favorable conditions.

Russia has only upped the pace of its attacks, looking to exploit what could be a temporary period of enemy weakness to maximize territorial gains and finding success in a dramatic breach of Ukrainian lines further south near Avdiivka.

To understand what could be a critical pressure test for the Ukrainian military and a sign of how the war will likely develop over the summer, the Kyiv Independent gained rare access to units serving both on the flanks of Chasiv Yar and inside the city itself.

“Of course we feel an escalation from the Russian side, but we are holding,” said Yankee upon returning to proper cover.

“They are trying to break us, now we need to break them.”

Under cover of spring

North of Chasiv Yar, open fields give way to undulating forest, where at the traditional dawn hour, Ukrainian soldiers are changing shifts.

Under a lush canopy of spring foliage, six figures in pixel camouflage walk in single file along a makeshift forest track.

Each of them carries a crucial component of kit typical to Ukrainian front-line positions: petrol for the generator, a pair of quadcopter drones, a crate full of 3D-printed bombs, and a slab of energy drinks.

As the men reach their positions and begin setting up their equipment, the sounds of the battle of Chasiv Yar ring out from the right of the unit’s sector.

These positions are manned by a reconnaissance team of Ukraine’s 56th Motorized Infantry Brigade, which has fought on the northern flank of the Bakhmut sector for over a year now.

Once performing the tasks of a traditional on-the-ground reconnaissance squad, their work is all done with drones now.

One team uses a Chinese commercial drone to maintain a constant vision of the zero line in the destroyed village of Bohdanivka, while another carries out bombing missions on Russian forces with an FPV (first-person-view) drone.

Usually associated with one-way “kamikaze” missions against enemy equipment and personnel, FPV drones can be also used to drop grenades and other custom-made munitions, allowing one drone to be used many more times.

Throughout the day, 28-year-old bomber pilot Andrii “Inspector” flies out from the dugout to peer over at the village’s debris-strewn streets in search of a target.

For now, the Russian troops are sticking to their basements, so the pilot has been tasked with demolishing them, one grenade at a time.

Periodically, the sound of other drones above their positions makes everyone crane their necks to the sky.

“Sometimes you have so many drones in the air,” said Inspector, “so many people wanting to work all at the same time that our guys end up interfering with each other's video feed.”

Off to the side, a lone hooded figure stands on the forest’s edge, flying yet another drone.

Softly-spoken 26-year-old Petro “Fanat” has been in the drone game longer than most, having flown fixed-wing UAVs on the front line in Donbas before the full-scale invasion.

From his vantage point in the air, Fanat has a front-row seat to watch Russian infantry assault tactics, by now famed for their lack of regard for human life.

“They follow a simple rule: if you managed to make it to the positions, dug in, and survived, good job,” he said. “The rest, the dead and the wounded, might be picked up at some point later but there is no guarantee.”

“Just a few days ago in Bohdanivka they had a few wounded left behind during an assault. Nobody came to help them, and eventually they were all finished off.”

Often given the crude label of “human wave” or “meat attack,” Russian assault tactics, using expendable infantry groups to swarm enemy positions and quickly entrench themselves, have nonetheless proved effective in exhausting Ukrainian defenders, as was the case in Bakhmut earlier in 2023.

“This use of units that go up and dig as close to the Ukrainian units as possible and then have assault units use them; Wagner was doing that last year,” said Rob Lee, Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia program, to the Kyiv Independent.

“It could very well be a tactic that the Russian military is adapting from them.”  

Making full use of the arrival of spring and Ukraine’s ammunition shortage, Russian troops have, according to open-source data as of May 1, advanced through the forest to the Donets-Donbas canal, aiming for a short section where the waterway goes underground.

“People need to understand that it is ordinary people, not super soldiers but ordinary mobilized people defending these trenches,” said Fanat.

“The enemy doesn't care, if they have 10 killed in action from an assault group, no problem, the next 10 will be there in an hour, so of course, eventually we can lose positions because of this.”

Night shift

As dusk reaches a quiet residential street at an undisclosed location further back from the front line, medics of the 5th Assault Brigade wait for peak hour to begin.

“When the enemy goes on the attack, we can often even predict how much work we are likely to have,” said 43-year-old Dmytro Urakov, in charge of the team of military doctors and volunteer medics that man this stabilization point.

It isn’t long before the evening’s work begins.

Tied to a stretcher, a young soldier is brought in with a spinal injury, after his pickup truck crashed when hit by an FPV drone.

Swarmed by the well-oiled team of medics, within 10 minutes, the soldier lies wrapped in the gold foil of a space blanket, ready for his transfer.

Leaning over, 31-year-old volunteer medic Anastasiia Chubachenko calms down the patient with a personal brand of small talk.

“Get ready for a little road trip, a special tour called ‘Donbas is a beautiful region,’” she said.

“Finish me off,” replied the wounded soldier, groaning.

“Sorry, I can’t do that, it costs extra.”

“I think I am allergic to Chasiv Yar.”

“Then it’s a good thing you are no longer there.”

By midnight, five patients had come through the stabilization point, all evacuated from Chasiv Yar, and all carrying light wounds from FPV drone strikes.

One patient, high on adrenaline and pleading to be allowed to drive to the hospital in his own vehicle, was there for the second time within a week.

“Everyone here will tell you that the situation with the wounded has changed dramatically when you compare what it was like a year ago with what we have now,” said Urakov.

“Ninety percent of the wounded that come through here are targeted either by FPV or by drone-dropped munitions.”

Not only has the saturation of the front with drones changed the nature of wounds suffered, but, more critically, it has made evacuating wounded from zero-line positions exponentially more difficult and dangerous.

“You used to be able to evacuate the wounded at night time on vehicles,” said Urakov, “but now they have plenty of drones with night vision… often it is up to the combat medics or infantry to drag them out on foot.”

Pushed to the limit

With the old roads now too dangerous to traverse, traffic into the embattled city center of Chasiv Yar flows along wide dirt highways criss-crossing the fields to the west of the city.

The U.S.-built HMMWV (Humvee), of which Ukraine operates hundreds, makes light work of the terrain.

In this phase of the war, dominated by the sightlines and ranges of FPV drones, riding in an armored car is not enough to guarantee safety; most vehicles, especially high-value targets like the Humvee, are all fitted with electronic warfare kits.

According to Yankee, while the brigade was losing soft-skin vehicles earlier at a rate of about one per day, by now the number was around four.

Along the way, a quick visit is made to soldiers who had just returned from eight days spent on zero-line positions.

In a cramped basement, 37-year-old infantryman Andrii “Burzhui” looks forward with an intense gaze, appearing somehow both focused and lost at the same time.

“The last shift was tough, there is nothing easy about it,” he said.

“When we arrived, they started shelling us instantly, the entrance to the dugout was hit, there were FPVs, grenade drops, and artillery working constantly.”

Burzhui, along with Yankee, fights in the ranks of Ukraine’s 41st Mechanized Brigade, alongside other assorted units to hold the urban area of Chasiv Yar itself.

“The situation is tense;” Yankee noted, “it's worth taking into account that our guys are on edge, our commanders too.”

Speaking to the Kyiv Independent, experts and soldiers alike identify manpower as the core problem at the heart of Ukraine’s military at this stage of the war: overstretched and undermanned units, with infantry often fighting for so long without rotation that their combat effectiveness begins to drop.

Despite the circumstances, Ukraine’s defense of Chasiv Yar remains stable, with little to no confirmed territorial gains in the area outside the city over the last 10 days.

The same cannot be said further south, where a botched rotation around the town Ocheretyne, northwest of occupied Avdiivka, has resulted in a growing bulge in the front line that Ukraine, lacking effective and readily available reserve forces, has so far been unable to contain.

Unfortunately, according to Lee, in conditions of limited manpower, losses in one sector will often compromise the defense of another. 

“When Ukraine has to fight off advances in a number of places at once but doesn't have sufficient manpower to do so, it makes it more difficult for them to deploy reserves to hold one given area,” he said.

“Whenever Russia is able to advance in one direction, it puts strain elsewhere because often Ukraine has to defend places with fewer units.”

With three different Russian reconnaissance drones flying overhead, the visit to Chasiv Yar is cut short as the area begins to be targeted by regular howitzer fire.

“We want peace of course, people are tired, they want to go back to their families, to normal life,” said Yankee, chuckling at the phrase “normal life” right as a whistling shell lands nearby.

“But it is simple logic, if we don't stop them here they will keep going forward.”


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