Ukrainian Commander Urges More Defenses in the Northeast

As Kyiv and Washington debate where Ukraine should commit troops along the war’s front line, Ukraine’s top general in the east has called for more reinforcements in a patch of territory where Russia is threatening to make additional gains.

Russian forces have managed to push forward around the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kupiansk in recent weeks as Kyiv’s forces have made slow headway in their continuing counteroffensive in the south and the east. Russia’s gains, while not significant, have led Ukrainian forces to dedicate some troops to defend parts of the sprawling front line, which stretches for several hundred miles, despite their need elsewhere.

“Enemy units continue to inflict damage with artillery, mortars and aircraft,” Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s eastern forces, said on the Telegram messaging app on Friday. “Under such conditions, we must promptly take all measures to strengthen our defenses on the threatened lines and advance where possible.”

The debate over Ukraine’s strategy has spilled into public view in recent days amid a flurry of news media reports, including from The New York Times, in which U.S. officials have blamed Ukraine’s slow progress in large part on its strategy.

Under the Pentagon’s reasoning, Kyiv should have massed an outsize number of forces on one portion of the front line to attempt a breakthrough. Ukrainian commanders have instead tried to divide troops and firepower in a manner that they consider to be as fair and as equal as possible between the east and south.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine responded bluntly to the American criticism this past week, saying that shifting Ukrainian forces away from places like Kupiansk, in the Kharkiv region, is what Russia is trying to accomplish.

“We will not give up Kharkiv, Donbas, Pavlohrad or Dnipro. And that’s that,” he said during a news conference on Wednesday according to the Ukrainian Pravda news outlet. “And let all the analysts in the world not even count on it.”

General Syrsky’s remarks were another reminder that despite the public focus on the counteroffensive in the south, other parts of the front line remain volatile.

“The enemy is now regrouping its forces and means, while also transferring the newly formed brigades and divisions from the territory of Russia,” General Syrsky said. “Russia’s key objective is to increase the level of combat potential and resume active offensive actions.” His claims about the arrival of new units could not be independently confirmed.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian officials have called for the evacuation of Kupiansk as Russian forces edge closer and shelling continues far behind the front lines. On Saturday, two civilians were killed in shelling in a small village just east of the city, according to local officials.

Ukraine took the city back from Russian control last September after it had been under occupation since the war’s early months, and losing it again would be a major blow. It appears unlikely, however, that Russian forces would try to retake the city, since that would put them in the position they faced before they were forced to retreat from Kherson last year, holding a city with a river at its back and limited supply lines.

Russian forces could instead try to push to the Oskil River, which runs north and south, and then use the waterway as a natural barrier against further Ukrainian attacks.

“Kupiansk will not be occupied anymore under any circumstances,” Andrii Besedin, the head of the Kupiansk city military administration, said on Telegram.

Here’s what else is happening:

  • Drone Attacks: Russia said it had shot down a Ukrainian drone in the Moscow region early Saturday morning, the latest in more than a dozen attempted drone attacks at the Russian capital and surrounding areas in August. The drone was destroyed by air defenses in near the town of Istra, northwest of Moscow, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

    U.S. officials said Kyiv’s more frequent unmanned attacks were intended to demonstrate to the Ukrainian public that it could strike back in the midst of the slow-moving counteroffensive. Ukraine has not directly claimed responsibility for the drones.

  • Gershkovich Appeal: Evan Gershkovich, an American reporter for The Wall Street Journal who has been held in Russia since March, has appealed the three-month extension of his pretrial detention ordered by a Moscow court this week, the Russian state news agency Tass reported.

    Mr. Gershkovich has been detained in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison on espionage charges that he, the U.S. government and The Journal have vehemently denied. The United States has said he is wrongfully detained. Mr. Gershkovich’s pretrial detention, which had previously been extended to Aug. 30, will now continue until at least Nov. 30.

  • Corruption Crackdown: The Security Service of Ukraine announced on Saturday the detainment of four more officials in military enlistment offices and military medical commissions on charges they were taking payments to help people evade the draft. The employees were accused of helping conscripts to “evade mobilization on the basis of fictitious documents on their medical unfitness for military service” for a fee of up to $10,000 per person. The arrests were the latest in a crackdown on draft evasion schemes that started earlier this month when all the officials in charge of regional military recruitment centers were dismissed.

Victoria Kim contributed reporting from Seoul, and Nataliia Novosolova from Kyiv.