Why Russia is struggling in eastern Ukraine, in maps

Ukraine’s military released drone footage on May 4 showing what it said were attacks on Russian military assets in the east of the country. (Video: Ukrainian Military via Storyful)

More than a month after Russia shifted its focus from an assault on Ukraine’s capital to a push to carve off pieces of the country’s east, the invading forces have made little progress — and Ukraine is launching counterattacks. The war is at “a bit of a stalemate,” according to Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, a top U.S. defense official.

While Russia cemented its control this week over the southern port city of Mariupol after a brutal 12-week assault, the invasion across much of the east has proceeded at a crawl.

With no end in sight, these maps explain how terrain, geography and logistics are shaping the battle for key cities, where the war’s outcome could be decided.

New terrain

Ukrainians excelled at defending urban and forested areas during the first phase of the war, the drive to take Kyiv. But compared to the northwest, parts of the country’s east are relatively open — especially the plains that extend from Crimea — which makes it harder to defend from advancing tanks.

Elevation in meters

50

200

400

600

>1,000

BELARUS

RUSSIA

Chernihiv

Extent of

Russian advance

Sumy

POLAND

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Lviv

Izyum

UKRAINE

Dnipro

Zaporizhzhia

Mariupol

Mykolaiv

Kherson

Odessa

Crimea

ROMANIA

100 MILES

Elevation in meters

50

200

400

600

>1,000

Extent of

Russian

advance

BEL.

Chernihiv

POL.

Sumy

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Lviv

Izyum

UKRAINE

Dnipro

Mykolaiv

Mariupol

ROMANIA

Odessa

Kherson

200 MILES

Elevation in meters

50

200

400

600

>1,000

RUSSIA

BELARUS

Chernihiv

Extent of

Russian advance

Sumy

POLAND

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Zhytomyr

Poltava

Lviv

Izyum

Cherkasy

UKRAINE

Kramatorsk

Luhansk

Uman

Dnipro

Kirovohrad

Donetsk

Zaporizhzhia

Mariupol

Melitopol

Mykolaiv

Berdyansk

Kherson

Odessa

ROMANIA

RUSSIA

Crimea

100 MILES

Elevation in meters

50

200

400

600

>1,000

BEL.

RUSSIA

Chernihiv

Extent of

Russian

advance

POL.

Sumy

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Lviv

Izyum

UKRAINE

Dnipro

Mykolaiv

Mariupol

ROMANIA

Odessa

Kherson

200 MILES

“It is easy to maneuver,” said Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. It is difficult for Ukraine to fight back “because it’s all flat, all visible.”

Why Russia gave up on urban war in Kyiv and turned to big battles in the east

Russian forces have already gained control over a band of land along the coast in the south and are fighting to take the hills above it. But the front lines in the southeast are nearly at a standstill.

In southeast Ukraine, a stalemate in ghost villages on the front line

The idea of an easily traversable flatland does not tell the whole story, though.

The terrain isn’t uniform, and some is easier to defend: Towns and small cities dot the northern part of Donetsk, and small rivers and hills run through the area, with forests strung along the Donets River, which flows from Russia. As they did around Kyiv, Ukrainian forces have destroyed bridges, thwarting Russian advances, according to Mason Clark, Russia team lead at the Institute for the Study of War.

Ukrainian military forces claim this footage shows destroyed Russian military vehicles and a pontoon bridge near the Siverskyi Donets River in Luhansk. (Video: Reuters)

Russian forces suffered heavy losses last week when a Ukrainian attack destroyed a pontoon bridge they were using to try to cross the Donets River.

Russia has a deep reservoir of tanks and armored vehicles, but spring rains through June could also create mud that slows them down, according to Dmytro Diadin, an environmental scientist at the O.M. Beketov National University of Urban Economy in Kharkiv.

Forested

Cropland

BEL.

BEL.

RUSSIA

RUSSIA

POL.

POL.

UKRAINE

UKRAINE

MOL.

MOL.

ROMANIA

ROMANIA

Forested

BEL.

RUSSIA

POL.

UKRAINE

MOL.

ROMANIA

Cropland

BEL.

RUSSIA

POL.

UKRAINE

MOL.

ROMANIA

Forested

BEL.

RUSSIA

POL.

UKRAINE

MOL.

ROMANIA

Cropland

BEL.

RUSSIA

POL.

UKRAINE

MOL.

ROMANIA

What to know about the role Javelin antitank missiles could play in Ukraine’s fight against Russia

In the Donbas and the Kharkiv regions, up to two-thirds of the land is used for agriculture, according to Diadin. Clusters of trees around farms in northern Donetsk provide cover for Ukrainian forces armed with antitank weapons such as Javelins and NLAWs to ambush Russian convoys, Clark said. Ukrainians have also mined some of the land to funnel Russian forces onto the roads, where they are easier to target, according to Michael Kofman, director of the Russia studies program at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Va.

The Ukrainian military said it destroyed a Russian tank in the Kharkiv region with an anti-tank rifle provided by the Swedish government. (Video: Ukraine Ministry of Defense via Storyful)

The ‘line of contact’

In 2014, separatists supported by Moscow declared “people’s republics” in large parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, along the Russian border. Known as Ukraine’s coal country and industrial center, the mainly Russian-speaking areas had been in Russia’s crosshairs for years.

Belgorod

RUSSIA

Valuyki

Kharkiv

Extent of Russian advance

LUHANSK

Izyum

KHARKIV

Line of

Contact

since 2014

UKRAINE

Luhansk

Dnipro

DNIPRO

DONETSK

Donetsk

Zaporizhzhia

RUSSIA

Rostov

Tangarog

ZAPORIZHZHIA

Mariupol

Melitopol

50 MILES

Berdyansk

Belgorod

RUSSIA

Kharkiv

UKRAINE

LUHANSK

Extent of

Russian advance

Luhansk

Dnipro

DONETSK

Donetsk

Zaporizhzhia

Line of

Contact

Mariupol

Melitopol

50 MILES

Belgorod

RUSSIA

Kharkiv

UKRAINE

Izyum

LUHANSK

Extent of

Russian advance

Luhansk

Line of

Contact

Dnipro

DONETSK

Donetsk

Zaporizhzhia

RUSSIA

Mariupol

Melitopol

50 MILES

A “line of contact” more than 260 miles long divided government-controlled and separatist-controlled areas, rending families and communities. Fighting left more than 14,000 dead between 2014 and early this year.

Ukrainian troops spent eight years building up defenses along the line.

Russian forces have heavily shelled the length of the line of contact in recent weeks, but they have struggled to break past it in Donetsk.

Defending Donetsk

Russia has said it intends to capture all of the Donbas region, the boundaries of which extend well beyond the original line of contact.

Russian forces have made significant progress in Luhansk. At least 90 percent of the region is in Russian hands, according to Clark of the Institute for the Study of War.

Russian-controlled

area

Izyum

Russian troop

advance

Lyman

Severodonetsk

Barvinkove

Slovyansk

Kramatorsk

Bakhmut

Kadiivka

Horlivka

Pokrovsk

Line of Contact

since 2014

Andriivka

Donetsk

Velyka

Novosilka

Russian troop

advance

RUSSIA

Russian-

controlled

area

Mariupol

15 MILES

Sea of Azov

Berdyansk

Russian-controlled

area

Izyum

Russian troop

advance

15 MILES

Lyman

Severodonetsk

Slovyansk

Kramatorsk

Kadiivka

Horlivka

Line of Contact

since 2014

Donetsk

Russian troop

advance

RUSSIA

Russian-

controlled

area

Mariupol

Sea of Azov

Berdyansk

Russian-controlled

area

Izyum

Russian troop

advance

Rubizhne

Lyman

Barvinkove

Severodonetsk

Lozova

Slovyansk

Kramatorsk

Bakhmut

Kadiivka

Horlivka

Pokrovsk

Line of Contact

Andriivka

since 2014

Donetsk

Pokrovske

Velyka

Novosilka

Hulyaipole

Russian troop

advance

RUSSIA

Russian-

controlled

area

Mariupol

15 MILES

Finalizing the capture of the port city of Mariupol this week opened a strategic land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Russia’s success in Mariupol granted its forces access to a key highway and freed up units to help attack towns in the Zaporizhzhia region.

But Ukraine still holds on to significant chunks of Donetsk. Its forces are “putting up a very stiff resistance,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters in early May.

The Institute for the Study of War assessed that as of May 15, the success of Ukrainian defenses in Donetsk, combined with flagging Russian combat power, has likely spurred Russia to shift its focus to capturing the rest of Luhansk, rather than attempting a larger encirclement of Ukrainian troops in Donbas.

Izyum: Gate to Donbas

A town that had about 45,000 residents, Izyum sits on the Donets River, at the highest point in the Kharkiv region bordering Donetsk. It’s the “gate to Donbas,” a member of the city council told The Post last month. Its position atop a hill grants the forces who control it a sweeping view over roadways and villages nearby.

Russian forces took the town on April 1 after a fierce, three-week fight. Since then, it has served as a springboard for Russian forces trying to push south.

RAILROAD

Russian-

controlled

area

5 MILES

Izyum

RAILROAD

Russian troop

advance

from Izyum

Lyman

Dovhenke

Barvinkove

Slovyansk

RAILROAD

Kramatorsk

RAILROAD

Russian-controlled

area

Russian troop

advance

from Izyum

Izyum

RAILROAD

Barvinkove

Slovyansk

RAILROAD

Kramatorsk

5 MILES

Russian-controlled

area

Russian troop

advance

from Izyum

Izyum

RAILROAD

Barvinkove

Slovyansk

RAILROAD

Kramatorsk

10 MILES

“If the Russians were going to succeed, Izyum would be the most important point” to their Donbas campaign, Clark said.

Russia in April pulled some of its forces from northeastern Ukraine and concentrated them in the Izyum area. But here, the Russians appear to be confined to roads. They have moved down three roadways leading out of Izyum, toward the cities of Slovyansk, Barvinkove and an indeterminate objective farther west, Clark said.

Russian forces reportedly sustained heavy losses in early May along the Izyum axis and have been relatively stalled on the route to Slovyansk.

They’ve made more progress toward Barvinkove, reaching the outskirts of the city. Capturing Barvinkove, about 30 miles southwest of Izyum, would help Russian forces cut off a Ukrainian rail supply line to Slovyansk farther east, according to Kofman.

But a lack of manpower poses a significant constraint for Russia. Ukrainian counterattacks north of Kharkiv exacerbated that problem, forcing Russia to redeploy troops from the Izyum area. Ukrainian officials said Saturday that the country’s forces were launching another counteroffensive near Izyum.

At this point, Russian efforts in the Izyum area may aim to prevent Ukraine from retaking territory, rather than to gain ground, Clark said.

Tenuous supply lines

Russia learned to establish firm supply lines the hard way, after logistical issues hampered the first phase of the invasion. In the war in the east, efforts to secure such routes in part explain the crawling speed of the Russian advance.

Russian supply lines to support its operations out of Izyum run from the Belgorod and Valuyki areas in Russia.

Belgorod

RUSSIA

Valuyki

Kharkiv

Chuhuiv

Kupiansk

Russian supply

lines to Izyum

UKRAINE

Izyum

25 MILES

RUSSIA

Belgorod

Valuyki

Kharkiv

Chuhuiv

Kupiansk

Russian

supply lines

to Izyum

UKRAINE

Izyum

25 MILES

25 MILES

RUSSIA

Belgorod

Valuyki

Kharkiv

Russian

supply

lines

to Izyum

Izyum

UKRAINE

25 MILES

Slovyansk

A Ukrainian counteroffensive this month has driven Russian troops to the Russian border. It’s unlikely that the Ukrainians will be able to sever Russian supply lines imminently, Clark said, but the counterattacks “will certainly be threatening to the Russians.”

The Ukrainian side also has to worry about supplies, even within its own borders, as railway lines have come under Russian attack.

The three cities in Russia’s way

Conquering Donbas, Kofman said, will require that Russia take three key cities: Slovyansk, Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk. “They’re small cities, but they’re cities nonetheless — and they’re not tank country,” he said. That means urban warfare, a Russian weakness.

The cities are near the boundary between Donetsk and Luhansk, close to the Donets River.

Russian-controlled area

Izyum

Severodonetsk

Rubizhne

RAILROAD

Lyman

Lysychansk

Barvinkove

RAILROAD

Slovyansk

Popasna

Kramatorsk

Line of Contact

Horlivka

15 MILES

Russian-controlled area

Severodonetsk

Izyum

Lyman

Slovyansk

Popasna

Kramatorsk

Horlivka

—Line of Contact

25 MILES

Donetsk

Russian-controlled area

Severodonetsk

Izyum

RAILROAD

Lyman

Slovyansk

Popasna

Bakhmut

Kramatorsk

Horlivka

Pokrovsk

—Line of Contact

25 MILES

Donetsk

Ukrainian forces are concentrated in Severodonetsk and the neighboring city of Lysychansk, and they are trying to hold a line west to the city of Lyman. Russian troops continue to shell and advance slowly toward Lyman.

Capturing the Lyman area could enable Russian forces to advance on Slovyansk from the east, as well as from the Izyum area to the west. Taking Slovyansk would cut off Ukrainian fighters defending against an assault from Severodonetsk, Clark said.

Slovyansk and Kramatorsk are rail hubs, and Kramatorsk has a major hospital. But gaining control of the two cities is “probably beyond [Russia’s] current capabilities,” Clark said.

As the fighting approached, Ukrainians set up fortified artillery fighting positions in wooded areas around Kramatorsk and dug trenches along country roads.

Video posted on March 18 by Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of the Donetsk region, shows severe damage to apartment buildings in Kramatorsk, where Ukrainian authorities said two people were killed and at least six were injured in a Russian strike. (Video: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=722513842241988)

Russia has enough vehicles and weapons to last through a grinding war, according to analysts, while Ukrainian fighters are nimbler and more motivated, though reliant on foreign weapons.

“This is going to be more of a longer war of attrition, rather than sort of the lightning war that presumably the Russians hoped to achieve,” said Amael Kotlarski, a senior analyst at open-source defense intelligence agency Janes.

Map sources: May 16 territory control data provided by Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Landcover data via Copernicus program and Global Land Service.

Sammy Westfall and Dalton Bennett contributed to this report.

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