Russia Making Slow Progress in Bid to Cut Off Ukrainian Forces – The Wall Street Journal

Russia’s military is gradually seizing more territory in Ukraine’s east, pushing south from the city of Izyum with the apparent aim of cutting off Ukrainian forces. But Ukrainian and Western officials and analysts say Moscow’s progress is slow and yet to achieve a decisive breakthrough.

Russian forces have seized villages south of Izyum in recent days, and are gathering for a fresh thrust after Ukraine halted their progress, Ukraine’s military said Thursday.

Russia at the end of March switched its immediate objectives from taking Kyiv and ousting the elected government to seizing chunks of territory in Ukraine’s east. But any success in severing Ukrainian units’ supply lines may not be decisive, analysts say, as Russian forces would be vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks and face tough urban fighting.

Moscow is seeking a quick advance before Ukraine is able to transfer new and rejuvenated units to the east, bolstered by heavy weapons promised or already delivered by the West, analysts say. Ukrainian officials say Russia is suffering heavy losses.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is in Ukraine to meet with President Zelensky; Russia released U.S. citizen Trevor Reed in a prisoner swap as tensions run high between Moscow and Washington; President Biden is set to call for more aid to Ukraine. Photo: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

The Pentagon said Wednesday that more than half of the 90 howitzers it recently pledged to Ukraine had been delivered. Oleksiy Arestovych, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, said that by the end of May, arms would have arrived in sufficient quantities to change the balance of forces on the front.

“By the middle of June…we will be ready to go on the attack,” he said in a Ukrainian television interview late Wednesday.

The West is funneling arms, such as artillery and antiaircraft guns, and ammunition to Ukraine to help it defend itself in a new phase of the war, where heavy weapons are expected to play a more important role. The weapons will take time to have an effect on the battlefield, as some of the systems are new to Ukrainians and require training and integrating into Kyiv’s military. The Pentagon said it had completed howitzer training this week for 50 Ukrainians who can pass on the knowledge to teammates.

Russia has quickly thrown together the remnants of units that were decimated in fighting around Kyiv in the first weeks of the war and sent them into fighting in the east. That has left Russian forces there without sufficient logistical and other support, preventing a significant breakthrough, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said Wednesday, describing Russian advances as minor.

“They have not taken enough time to rebuild forces wrecked fighting around Kyiv. They are hurling them into combat as they become available,” said Frederick Kagan, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington.

Ukrainian soldiers guarded a position Wednesday in a front-line village in the Zaporizhzhia region.

Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Kharkiv residents helped an emergency worker carry a man to an ambulance Wednesday following a Russian strike on the northeastern city.

Photo: Felipe Dana/Associated Press

Russian officials say they intend to push Ukrainian forces out of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, which the Kremlin recognized as independent in February. Moscow says the invasion, which it calls a “special military operation,” is going to plan.

Mr. Arestovych, the presidential adviser, said Russia could achieve further advances where it has concentrated artillery and aerial power for bombardments, but that Ukrainian forces were inflicting heavy losses and withdrawing only to take up better defensive positions.

Russia’s military has so far had little success breaching the defensive line that Ukraine’s army set up along the front line of an eight-year conflict with Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine. But Russia has made progress striking from Russian territory in the north, where Ukrainian defenses were less prepared.

The Russian advances south of Izyum appear aimed at cutting off Ukrainian troops in the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. Another Russian advance farther east, toward the city of Lyman, is attempting to encircle the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. Analysts said it was as yet unclear whether Russia would seek a large encirclement of Ukrainian troops or smaller pockets.

But even if they surround Ukrainian units, Russian forces will be vulnerable to counterattacks and would have to pursue urban fighting, where defenders have a significant advantage. Russia’s military surrounded large cities such as Chernihiv in northern Ukraine in March but failed to capture them.

“At a certain point it is possible, but not inevitable, that the Russian will to fight will break, that they will not be able to conduct offensive operations if they continue to take terrible losses,” said Mr. Kagan.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces shot down a Ukrainian Su-24 aircraft near Mykolaivka in eastern Ukraine. It said Russia’s air force struck 67 Ukrainian military facilities over the past 24 hours, and that Russian forces had repelled an attack by Ukrainian forces with Tochka-U missiles and rocket launchers in Russian-held territory in Kherson, in Ukraine’s south.

Russia is refocusing its offensive in Ukraine on the Donbas region, following setbacks in Kyiv and other northern cities, where it was thwarted in the air and on the ground. But military experts say the landscape of the east could be advantageous for Moscow. Photo Illustration: Laura Kammermann

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, accused Russia in a late-night address of using what he called energy blackmail to warn European countries off providing further support for Ukraine. Moscow cut off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria on Wednesday, a move that the Ukrainian leader called a clear demonstration that “no one in Europe can hope to maintain any normal economic cooperation with Russia.”

The White House also criticized Russia’s energy stoppages, with press secretary Jen Psaki telling reporters on Wednesday that Moscow was “almost weaponizing energy supplies.”

Some European officials have said that Russia’s moves against Poland and Bulgaria were intended as a warning against all European Union members sending weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. Germany on Tuesday said it would deliver antiaircraft cannon tanks to Ukraine, ditching its previous reluctance to send heavy weapons and joining a growing number of countries, led by the U.S., that are arming Ukraine’s defenders with artillery, armored vehicles and other powerful weaponry.

The EU has vowed to continue phasing out purchases of Russian natural gas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, warned on Wednesday of dire consequences for any country that intends to interfere with Russia’s operation to take over Ukraine and create what he called “strategic threats.”

Ukrainians displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country arrive in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia.

Photo: Manu Brabo for The Wall Street Journal

Mourners gathered Wednesday on the outskirts of Kyiv for the funeral of a man captured by Russians while serving in Ukraine’s territorial defense forces.

Photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz/MAPS for The Wall Street Journal

Speaking to the Russian Federal Assembly’s Council of Legislators in St. Petersburg, he said: “They should know that our response to counter strikes will be lightning fast.”

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned earlier in the week that the West was now engaged in a proxy war with Russia over Ukraine that could escalate into a global conflict—remarks U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described as “dangerous and unhelpful.”

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is scheduled to meet with Ukraine’s Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv later Thursday after meeting with Messrs. Putin and Lavrov in Moscow earlier this week.

Mr. Guterres also visited Bucha, a commuter town just north of Kyiv where hundreds of residents were killed during Russia’s initial attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital in the early days of the invasion and the subsequent occupation. The area is now the focus of a war-crimes investigation by the International Criminal Court, though Russia isn’t a party to the court and is unlikely to extradite any commanders to stand trial.

“I appeal to the Russian Federation to accept to cooperate with the International Criminal Court,” Mr. Guterres said. “But when we talk about war crimes, we cannot forget that the worst of crimes is war itself.”

Ukrainian authorities on Thursday filed criminal charges against 10 Russian soldiers accused of taking civilians hostage and mistreating them in Bucha, in the first such move by prosecutors investigating possible war crimes.

All were noncommissioned officers and privates from Russia’s 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, one of the units that took part in the monthlong occupation of the Kyiv suburb. Ukrainian authorities said they discovered more than 400 dead civilians after Russian forces retreated in late March, their bodies packed in mass graves or left splayed on streets and sidewalks.

Write to James Marson at james.marson@wsj.com

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Russia Making Slow Progress in Bid to Cut Off Ukrainian Forces – The Wall Street Journal

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