KYIV, Ukraine — Despite suffering grievous losses over nearly six months of war, Russia still holds a distinct advantage over Ukraine in a head-to-head fight featuring brutal artillery battles. So the Ukrainian military is seeking to wage the war on its own terms.
Supplied with a growing arsenal of long-range Western weapons and aided by local fighters known as partisans, Ukraine has claimed to hit Russian forces deep behind enemy lines, disrupting critical supply lines and, increasingly, striking targets that are key to Moscow’s combat potential. One blow to the Russians this week was a series of explosions at an air base on the occupied Crimean Peninsula that a Ukrainian official said had resulted from a strike carried out with the help of local fighters.
And on Saturday, the Ukrainians claimed to have hit the last of four key bridges spanning the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine, leaving thousands of Russian troops further isolated and cut off from resupply, according to Western intelligence officials.
“Of course, they will try to repair, look for an alternative in the crossings,” Serhii Khlan, an adviser to the head of Kherson region’s military administration, said in a Facebook post. “But it is time, money, and then as soon as they prepare and gain equipment and strength — we will destroy it again.”
It was the latest move in a campaign aimed at retaking southern territory that Russia captured in the first days of the war, a push that the Ukrainians hope is weakening Moscow’s forces to the point that they will be forced to retreat.
The change in Ukraine’s tactics has not resulted in major territorial gains. But it has managed to stop the Russian advance across the country and stem the heavy losses Ukraine was experiencing in the spring, when as many as 200 of its soldiers were dying per day.
The main Russian effort in eastern Ukraine is now focused on trying to gain ground in the Donetsk region, and there has been intense fighting in recent days in the area around the town of Pisky. Russia’s defense ministry said on Saturday that the town had fallen, a claim that could not be independently verified.
Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said this past week that the American and British defense ministers had both offered him a piece of advice: “The Russians use meat-grinder tactics — if you plan to fight them with the same tactics, we will not be able to help you,” Mr. Reznikov said in an interview with Pravda, a Ukrainian news media outlet.
“We do not have the resources to litter the territory with bodies and shells, as Russia does,” he said. “Therefore it is necessary to change tactics, to fight in a different way.”
Rather than engaging head on and trying to beat the Russians with brute force, they are employing a strategy of death by a thousand cuts.
Critical to Russia’s efforts to hold onto land in Ukraine’s south is Moscow’s control over Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. Before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine early this year, Moscow sent tens of thousands of soldiers to the peninsula, and they captured large swaths of the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia within days.
Since then, rail lines from Crimea have been critical in enabling Moscow to move heavy weapons and equipment into southern Ukraine. Last week, Britain’s defense intelligence agency said that the Ukrainians had hit a key train line from the peninsula, making it “highly unlikely the rail link connecting Kherson with Crimea remains operational.”
The Russians will likely race to repair it, the agency said, but the attack underscored a critical vulnerability.
Then, on Tuesday, a series of explosions ripped through a Russian naval air base in Crimea, destroying at least eight Russian combat jets and delivering a severe blow to the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s naval aviation capability, according to Western military analysts.
Whatever the cause of the explosions, they not only were a symbolically embarrassing episode for the Kremlin, but also underscored Russia’s vulnerabilities in the southern theater.
Vitaliy Kim, the head of the military administration in Mykolaiv, where Ukraine’s military is staging forces for its counteroffensive, said the flexibility of its approach offered a distinct advantage.
“The Russians are working by the book, deploying battle formations as it was laid out in the Soviet Union,” he said in an interview this past week. “Our guys have read this book and understand it perfectly well, and are using it for their own goals.”
Michael Schwirtz and Nataliia Novosolova contributed reporting.