DONETSK REGION, Ukraine -- "It's like gangrene that needs constant treatment because otherwise it gets worse or spreads" -- that's how Volodymyr, a surgeon at a triage unit near Avdiyivka, an industrial Donbas city targeted by intense Russian attacks since early October, described the current state of fighting in Ukraine's east.
The team of doctors and medics who started working here shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion keep a container for shrapnel and bullets they take out of the wounded soldiers' bodies. Since Russia launched its new offensive in a bid to surround and capture the strategic city, the casualties have been arriving in waves -- sometimes several dozen badly wounded soldiers in a single day.
With a surge of close combat in the battle for Avdiyivka, more soldiers are suffering bullet wounds on top of injuries from artillery and drone attacks, Oleksandr, a traumatologist who heads the facility, told RFE/RL. Some come with their eyes irritated by chloropicrin, a nonlethal chemical weapon, he says, and medics evacuating the wounded sometimes see the skyline of Donetsk, the Russian-occupied regional capital, lit up by phosphorus munitions.
As another winter sets in and Russia's full-scale invasion approaches the two-year mark with the prospects for future Western weapons supplies and economic aid clouded by political wrangling -- particularly in the United States, where Republicans in Congress have so far stonewalled White House efforts to secure some $61 billion in additional aid for Ukraine -- this is what the war in Ukraine looks like.
Despite some advances, a major counteroffensive mounted by Kyiv six months ago has fallen far short of the goal of breaking through the "land bridge" running across southern Ukraine from the Donbas to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula whose seizure in 2014 in marked the start of a long and continuing land grab by President Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Instead of pushing Russian forces back to the border, Ukrainian soldiers face the harsh reality of positional warfare -- "a bloody disease we have learned to live with," Volodymyr said.
'We Will Keep Fighting'
Issuing his own verdict on the counteroffensive, Ukraine's top military commander said there would be no "quick and beautiful breakthrough." The war had reached a "stalemate," General Valeriy Zaluzhniy told The Economist, sparking controversy in Kyiv and adding a troubling point for debates in the West about military and economic aid to Ukraine.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy took issue with Zaluzhniy's wording, saying there was no stalemate. But on December 1, he said the war had entered a "new phase."
With the onset of winter on the steppes of the Donbas, Ukrainian soldiers are set on holding the line -- which, in some cases, is not far from where it was on the eve of Russia's full-scale invasion, after nearly eight years of fighting in the region.
"If Avdiyivka falls, then it falls," said Maksym, a 28-year-old soldier deployed in the region, "but we will keep fighting."
Maksym joined a unit called the Aidar Battalion in 2014, when Russia fomented war in the Donbas, and gained his first combat experience in the industrial hub on the southeastern outskirts of Avdiyivka -- precisely where fierce battles now rage.
He told RFE/RL that he had lost many brothers-in-arms in nearly a decade of conflict and that he was haunted by photos and videos he said show the torture by Russian troops of Ukrainian captives, such as a recently reported case of a Ukrainian soldier named Serhiy who allegedly had a Nazi swastika carved into his forehead.
"Am I tired? No f------ way am I tired," Maksym said as he drove to his unit's positions, using an expletive. "I want to take a head for each head and then another one."
On The Defensive?
The loss of Avdiyivka would hand Putin a symbolic victory ahead of the Russian presidential election in March and deprive Ukraine of an important element of its defense. It would also bolster the arguments of skeptics in the United States and Europe who oppose further support for Ukraine.
That's one reason why talk of a new war strategy is gaining ground in Ukraine.
On November 28, Zelenskiy announced plans for the speedy construction of an extensive network of fortifications on the main defensive lines in the Donbas as well as in areas bordering Russia and Belarus. "Our country will definitely have enough mines and concrete," he said in a video address.
The area around Avdiyivka, just north of the Russian-occupied regional capital of Donetsk, is where the most attention is focused. Mykola Kovlenko, head of the Ocheretyne territorial community, which surrounds Avdiyivka from the west, told RFE/RL that work on new defense lines there was already advanced.
'Little Hope Of A Checkmate'
In their fierce push around Avdiyivka, Russian forces mix frontal attacks by columns of tanks and armored personnel carriers -- so far, three of these assaults have been futile -- with a tactic of incremental gains based on infantry, artillery, and drones.
Russian forces have the numerical advantage despite manpower problems, and their assault on Avdiyivka echoes the drawn-out attack on Bakhmut, a city further north that fell in May after many months of heavy fighting. Russia deploys former inmates and other inexperienced soldiers for what Ukrainians call "meat assaults" -- reckless attacks aimed at wearing out Ukrainian infantry -- before sending elite forces into battle.
Ukrainian artillery units struggle to match Russian fire amid "widespread shell hunger," Anton, an artilleryman in one of the brigades stationed in the area, told RFE/RL. While EU countries are unlikely to fulfill their promise to deliver 1 million rounds of ammunition to Kyiv by next spring, Russia has received large amounts of munitions from North Korea and ramped up its domestic military production.
The Ukrainian advantage in drone reconnaissance and drone strikes that counterbalanced Russia's artillery-shell advantage is now gone, Anton's comrade Mykyta, a drone operator, told RFE/RL. The Russians have copied Ukrainian tactics, organized a stable supply of drones, and developed effective electronic-warfare units, he said, turning the battlefield into "a chess game with little hope of a checkmate."
F-16 combat jets promised by the West have not yet been delivered to Ukraine, and Russia continues to dominate the sky over the front line. Large precision-guided bombs dropped by Russian aircraft, combined with rockets and missiles, are gradually razing Donbas villages and towns to the ground.
"The heart of the problem lies not in the strategy but in the lack of resources," Mykola Byelyeskov, an analyst at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a government-linked research organization in Kyiv, told RFE/RL. "We have learned that a classic offensive is beyond the capabilities of both sides, but new tactics can be devised."
According to a new study by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, the amount of newly pledged aid to Ukraine from Western countries reached its lowest point in August-October 2023, down almost 90 percent compared to the same period in 2022.
'The Most Dangerous Moment'
U.S. President Joe Biden's efforts to secure billions of dollars in additional aid for Ukraine have been stymied for months. Specifically, the $61 billion request -- part of a $110 billion package that also includes aid for Israel and other expenditures -- failed to advance in the Senate last week because Republicans are tying it to demands for immigration reform.
The White House said on December 4 that it expected last year's $45 billion aid package to be depleted by the end of the month.
"This is the most dangerous moment since Moscow's nearly 10-year war began and since Moscow's nearly two-year big invasion began," John Herbst, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in 2003-06 and now an analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, told RFE/RL.
"If American support for Ukraine does not diminish, Ukraine eventually wins the war," Herbst said. "If our assistance sharply diminishes or disappears, Ukraine is in great danger of losing this war."
While U.S. political wrangling may only worsen as the November 2024 elections approach, Herbst put the chances of Congress passing another aid package for Ukraine at "greater than 50 percent" -- but he and many others say it's unlikely to happen before the New Year.
"I think it means a lot of anxiety for Ukraine and maybe a little less willingness to use some of their equipment in battle," Herbst said.
"The fortunate thing for Ukraine is that its winter and not very much is happening on the battlefield, so the fact that there is this pause [in aid] is not fatal the way it might have been a year ago," when Russia launched an offensive on Bakhmut, Mark Cancian, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told RFE/RL.
However, he says that the Ukrainian armed forces may begin to feel the impact of reduced U.S. military aid in January: They might struggle to carry out local attacks, much less large-scale offensives.
And even if aid packages are passed, Ukraine could still face pressure to seek a negotiated solution if it makes little progress in the coming year, Cancian notes.
"It would be hard for them to win a war of attrition and even if they did, the sacrifices involved are terrible. If a year from now we are in the same position we are today, I think the Ukrainians will be tired and their supporters will be tired too," he said. "The challenge Zelenskiy faces is articulating a theory of victory. He can't go indefinitely without articulating how he is going to win this war."
Byelyeskov, meanwhile, argues that the United States has so far been "incapable of putting forward a sound military strategy and was focusing on escalation management instead."
"The conditions for the current crisis [over aid for Ukraine] in the United States were created by this reactive approach, epitomized by the phrase, 'As long as it takes,'" he said.
In any case, Putin is likely to face far less pressure than Zelenskiy on that score, especially if he can avoid ordering a massive new military call-up before he secures a new six-year term in a presidential election in March. Many Russians would like the war to be over, but analysts say the Kremlin could sell almost any outcome to citizens as a win, in part because it has cast its invasion of Ukraine as a forced step to defend Russia against the West.
'On The Horizon'
Following Russia's spectacular failure to subjugate Ukraine within weeks of the full-scale invasion -- and after major setbacks at the hands of Ukrainian forces in the subsequent months -- observers say Putin's best hope for what he can portray as a victory is for Western support for Ukraine to falter. The limited results of Kyiv's counteroffensive and the fights in the United States and European Union over backing for Kyiv are almost certain to have increased his confidence in such an outcome.
But William Courtney, a former U.S. diplomat and now a Russia analyst at the Rand Corporation think tank, says that the West should not underestimate the Ukrainian armed forces, which have surprised observers many times since the 2022 invasion.
And for now, Courtney says, Ukraine has prevented Russia from gaining air superiority over most of its territory and is continuously reducing Moscow's ability to use Crimea for power projection. "We should be cautious in believing it will remain a stalemate for a long time," he said.
Near the front line south of the city of Donetsk, despite the deepening cold and the uncertainty over weapons supplies and Western support, Oleksandr, a mortarman from the same brigade as Maksym, has concerns that reach beyond the next few months.
Oleksandr, 49, left his post as mayor of the central city of Uman on the first day of Russia's full-scale invasion to serve as a low-ranking soldier. He now defends trenches dug in the black earth along the shattered tree lines in an empty field.
"I am more worried about Ukraine after the war than the coming winter," he said. "People in Ukraine would have a tough time accepting the war ending with anything else than taking back all our land, and that is far away on the horizon for now."