DONETSK PROVINCE, Ukraine — After chasing retreating Russian troops across a stretch of rolling hills and forests for a month, Ukrainian troops in the eastern Donbas region have slowed almost to a halt. And in recent days, Russian reinforcements have rushed to the front line, attempting a counterattack to break Ukraine’s momentum.
Moscow is waging war on two fronts, one on the battlefield, where it has sustained steady losses, including in the Donbas region, the main focus of its invading force since April.
On another front, Russia has escalated its attacks with long-range weapons on civilian targets across Ukraine — including drone strikes far off in Kyiv, the capital, that left at least four people dead on Monday.
The military campaign in the east, meanwhile, has become a battle of shelling, positioning and surveillance where Russian and Ukrainian troops square off just a few hundred yards apart.
In a village near the front line on Sunday, a steady volley of mortars rained down on a Ukrainian position as a radio crackled in a small farmhouse, calling for assistance to find where the Russians were firing from.
“Let’s get to work,” one of the Ukrainian soldiers said, picking up a small drone and heading out the door near the border between Donetsk and Luhansk Provinces, which together make up the Donbas region.
He was part of a drone reconnaissance team from the National Guard’s Dnipro 1 battalion that was working close to the front line, sheltering from shelling while sending up drones to hunt for a range of Russian targets, from tanks to the elusive mortar team.
Russian troops had been grinding forward slowly until the Ukrainian Army mounted a successful counteroffensive at the beginning of September, sweeping across a large swath of northeastern Ukraine, recapturing strategic cities in Donetsk and threatening Russia’s hold on Luhansk.
The Russian side is trying to hang on to the important transport hubs of Svatove and Kreminna. If Ukraine can recapture those two towns, it could break Moscow’s grip on much of Luhansk Province.
But Russian troops seem to have regrouped after their headlong flight last month. They have tanks, artillery and mortars and hold positions on high ground across a valley. The men of Dnipro 1 also said there were signs of newly mobilized Russian soldiers on the ground.
The villages now behind the Ukrainian front line are almost deserted; burned-out tanks and military trucks sit beside the road and in the pine forests.
Svetlana, who was sitting near the road on Sunday afternoon selling mushrooms gathered from the woods behind her house, said she had come back home as soon as Ukrainian troops recaptured her village. She had been jobless and found it hard to survive as a refugee. “For two weeks now, we have been feeling some relief,” she said.
Closer to the front line, fresh craters from mortar fire pocked the road.
The Ukrainian reconnaissance team’s confidence was buoyed by recent successes. Five days earlier, the Russians had attacked with a large force of 50 to 60 men but were repelled, said one of the officers, Filin, who gave only his code name in keeping with military protocol. The next day, they tried again with a smaller force but also were pushed back, said Filin, 32.
Then the Dnipro 1 team carried out an improvised attack, dropping a grenade from a small commercial drone onto a Russian armored vehicle where a group of soldiers was gathered. The next day they surveilled the area and saw one man dead on the ground where the grenade had hit, apparently abandoned by his comrades.
“After that they stopped the attacks,” said another member of the team, who uses the code name Kon. “They don’t like the sound of drones.”
The Russians have resumed their incessant artillery and mortar strikes but have not tried to advance again, the soldiers said.
Some of the Russian soldiers seemed poorly trained and inexperienced, they said. But others were skilled operators: They have jamming devices that interfere with the drones and can maneuver their tanks to avoid Ukrainian attacks — hiding in the forest and moving out to fire before swiftly disappearing, according to the reconnaissance team’s leader, who goes by Android.
Still, after a month on the move, the Ukrainians said they were confident that they would keep advancing.
“For us, every meter of recaptured land, gives us power,” said Duke, the team’s company commander.”