Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A Ukrainian soldier of the Paratroopers' of 80th brigade listens to artillery fire at a frontline position near Bakhmut, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, on March 16.VIOLETA SANTOS MOURA/Reuters

Russia’s offensive has bogged down on Ukraine’s eastern front, though Russian regular and mercenary forces still seem determined to overrun Bakhmut in spite of taking as many as 1,500 casualties a day.

That was the assessment Friday from a senior NATO official in Brussels who gave a background briefing to several media outlets, including The Globe and Mail. For security reasons, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would not allow his name to be used.

The source said the Eastern front was largely unchanged despite intense fighting and horrific losses on both sides in several areas, notably Bakhmut and, to the south, Vuhledar. “There have not been any significant adjustments in the battlefield so far in 2023,” he said. “The front lines remain relatively static.”

The flood of newly trained soldiers and equipment, such as German-built Leopard 2 tanks from several European countries as well as Canada, will give Ukraine the ability to launch an offensive in the next weeks or months that should allow it “to bring the war to a successful conclusion,” he said.

Ukraine is getting air power as well as missile and howitzer power. This week, Poland agreed to send four Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter-bombers to Ukraine and could send about eight more. Slovakia is sending 13 MiG-29s. The United States is declining to send the far more advanced F-16 fighter-bombers.

The NATO official said that the Russian army and Wagner Group, the mercenary force that is seeing the brunt of the fighting – and the losses – in parts of the East, still appear determined to take the largely destroyed city of Bakhmut, in Donetsk province, which had a prewar population of 71,000.

The Russians control the eastern half of the city and have captured the areas to the north and the south in an effort to choke off Ukrainian supply lines; the Ukrainians still control the western half of the city and recently bolstered their forces with elite fighting units.

The NATO official did not rule out Ukraine withdrawing its forces and building a new line of defence in the hills to the immediate west of Bakhmut, where higher elevations would give the Ukrainian military a defensive advantage.

“I would not view that as an operational or strategic setback, because I think there is some very defensible terrain in that area,” he said, calling a potential Russian victory in Bakhmut a “symbolic, political objective for Moscow” that would come with a horrendous cost and probably not change the course of the war.

He said the fighting in Bakhmut has been “really brutal and really grinding” with thousands of artillery rounds being fired by each side every day, to the point that the two armies are running low on ammunition. This may explain why the Russian ground attacks along the eastern front have subsided somewhat in the past week or so.

His analysis is supported by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. In a recent note, the ISW said that the Russian offensive in the nearby Luhansk region in the East appeared to be slowing.

“The Russian offensive operation in Luhansk Oblast is likely nearing culmination, if it has not already culminated,” it said. “Russian forces have made only minimal tactical gains along the entire Luhansk Oblast front line over the last week, and Ukrainian forces have likely recently managed to conduct counterattacks and regain territory in Luhansk Oblast.”

The NATO official said Russian losses, mostly taken by the Wagner Group, “have been extraordinary” because the strategy appears to be “substituting manpower for equipment, quantity for quality and sacrificing troops for incremental gains on the ground.”

He said NATO and British military estimates put the Russian losses in the first two weeks of February at their highest level since the first week of the invasion, which was launched on Feb. 24, 2022. Last month, he said, the Russian casualties (dead, wounded and captured) were 824 a day on average and may have reached 1,500 a day during the bloodiest fighting.

NATO believes the Ukrainian losses, while high, are “significantly lower” than the Russian losses, though the official declined to attach a number to them.

The NATO official said that the military alliance has no indication that China has sent, or is about to send, lethal military assistance to Russia, which is pleading with allies for equipment (Iran giving Russia warhead-equipped drones). “But we also notice that it hasn’t been decisively, conclusively taken off the table,” he said, referring to potential transfers from China.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping will visit Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next week – their first meeting since the invasion started. The visit is seen as Beijing’s show of support for the Kremlin and increased trade between the two countries. It is not known whether weapons will be discussed at the meetings.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe