By Vitali Hnidyi and Thomas Peter
NEAR KUPIANSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – Rows of white concrete barricades and coils of barbed wire stretch across an open field for more than a kilometer. Trenches housing rudimentary housing were dug under cover of darkness. Artillery rumbles nearby.
The new defensive lines visited by Reuters near the northeastern town of Kupiansk on December 28 show how Ukraine has accelerated the construction of fortifications in recent months as it shifts its military operations against Russia towards a more defensive base.
The defenses, which bear some similarities to those deployed in Russia’s occupied south and east, aim to help Ukraine resist onslaught while regenerating its forces as Moscow seizes battlefield initiative, they said. military analysts said.
“As soon as the troops move and cross fields, you can do without fortifications. But when the troops stop, you must immediately dig up the ground,” a Ukrainian army engineer wearing the call sign Lynx.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced on November 28 that Ukraine was “significantly strengthening” its fortifications after a counteroffensive launched in June failed to quickly break through Russian lines.
kyiv says it remains steadfast in its ambition to retake all remaining occupied territories, but is for now focused on politically sensitive conscription reforms to replenish its troop numbers and address artillery shortages at the front.
Russia has stepped up its offensive pressure around eastern cities such as Kupiansk, Lyman and Avdiivka, and no longer needs to hold back its reserve troops for fear of a possible Ukrainian breakthrough, military analysts say.
Zelenskiy said Ukraine’s defensive constructions should be strengthened and work accelerated around the three cities, in the eastern parts of the Donetsk region and in the Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Kiev, Rivne and Volyn regions.
These regions stretch from eastern Ukraine, along the border with Russia and Belarus, to its western ally Poland. Zelenskiy said the southern Kherson region, part of which is still occupied, would also be strengthened.
There is no publicly available data on the intensity or scale of fortification construction.
Ukraine has had defensive lines in parts of the eastern Donbas region since 2014, when Russia supported militants who seized the territory. It was heavily dug in places like Avdiivka throughout the large-scale invasion.
Stronger fortifications would slow down Russian troops and draw fewer Ukrainian forces to defense, freeing them from the front so they could, for example, receive more training, said Jack Watling, a senior land warfare researcher at the Royal United Services Institute.
“The Ukrainians are now adopting a defensive position because their offensive has reached its peak,” he said in a telephone interview, adding that Russia had regained the initiative on the battlefield and was able to to choose where to attack.
With Ukrainian artillery ammunition stocks dwindling, Russian casualty rates are falling, making it easier for Moscow to generate new units, which could ultimately allow it to open new lines of defense. attack, he added.
“On the Ukrainian side, they are trying to minimize their own losses, but also to regenerate their offensive combat power,” Watling said.
He added that the fortifications could also be used to defend Ukraine’s flanks when it returns to the offensive.
On Wednesday, Reuters journalists visited trenches dug using an excavator and shovels at an undisclosed location in the Chernihiv region, near the Russian border.
“When the civilians have done their job (building the positions), we will mine it intensively,” Serhiy Nayev, commander of the Ukrainian joint forces who oversees the northern military sector, told reporters on the scene.
Last month, Reuters journalists visited newly constructed Ukrainian trenches at Chernobyl, near the border with Belarus, a Russian ally used by Moscow as a base for the February 2022 invasion.
A large military engineering vehicle crossed the snowy ground while digging a large anti-tank ditch.
“(Work is underway) throughout the northern operational zone. This work is currently underway in the Sumy region, in the Chernihiv region, here in the direction of kyiv,” Nayev said on the site.
“Concrete structures, barbed wire, ‘dragon’s teeth’ (concrete barricades)… they will be mined and barbed wire will be placed on top. This will constitute a continuous concrete obstacle for armored vehicles,” he said. declared.
Near Kupiansk, the Ukrainian military showed Reuters journalists the newly constructed defensive lines, but said the exact location could not be publicly disclosed for security reasons.
A military engineer using the call sign “Lizard” said they usually laid the “dragon teeth” first, followed by spools of razor wire, then mines, if they used them.
“I think most of these barriers should have been built much earlier, probably in the spring. It’s taking too long,” he said.
Several hundred meters behind the “dragon’s teeth”, work was underway to expand a network of personnel trenches reinforced with wooden beams where there were also living quarters and wooden bunk beds.
Lynx, the other serviceman, said Ukraine was trying to minimize the use of mines for its fortifications to avoid leaving dangerous munitions on its territory.
“It’s our land. We wouldn’t want to throw so much waste there,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Ivan Lyubysh-Kirdey and Gleb Garanich; writing and additional reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Mike Collett-White and Timothy Heritage)
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