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Ukrainians struggle to conserve energy after strikes damage power plants

Ukrainians struggle to conserve energy after strikes damage power plants
attributed to him…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
attributed to him…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
attributed to him…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

DONETSK PROVINCE, Ukraine – After chasing retreating Russian forces through a stretch of rolling hills and forests for a month, Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbass region have slowed to a near standstill. And in recent days, Russian reinforcements rushed to the front line, trying to launch a counterattack to break the Ukrainian momentum.

Moscow is fighting a war on two fronts, one on the battlefield, in which it has sustained constant losses, including in the Donbass region, the main hub of its invading force since April.

On the other hand, Russia has stepped up its attacks with long-range weapons on civilian targets across Ukraine – including remote drone strikes in Kyiv, the capital, which left at least four people dead on Monday.

Meanwhile, the military campaign in the east became a battle of bombardment, positioning and surveillance as Russian and Ukrainian forces leveled out only a few hundred meters away.

In a village near the frontline on Sunday, a continuous barrage of mortars rained down on a Ukrainian outpost while a radio rang out on a small farm, pleading for help to find where the Russians were shooting from.

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“Let’s get to work,” said one of the Ukrainian soldiers, picked up a small drone and went out the door near the border between Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, which together make up the Donbass region.

He was part of a drone reconnaissance team of the 1st Dnipro Battalion of the National Guard that was operating near the front line, hiding from shelling while sending drones to search for a range of Russian targets, from tanks to an elusive mortar team.

Russian forces were advancing slowly until the Ukrainian army launched a successful counterattack at the beginning of September, overrunning a large swathe of northeastern Ukraine, retaking the strategic cities of Donetsk and threatening Russia’s control of Luhansk.

The Russian side is trying to hold on to the important transport hubs of Svatov and Kremena. If Ukraine manages to retake these two cities, it may break Moscow’s hold on much of the Luhansk province.

But it appears that Russian forces have regrouped after their reckless flight last month. They have tanks, artillery and mortars and hold positions on high ground across a valley. The men of Dnipro 1 also said that there were signs of a freshly mobilized Russian soldiers on the ground.

attributed to him…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

The villages now behind the Ukrainian front line are almost deserted; Tanks and military trucks burned by the road and in the pine forests.

Svetlana, who was sitting near the road on Sunday afternoon selling mushrooms collected from the forest behind her house, said she returned home as soon as Ukrainian forces recaptured her village. She was unemployed and found it difficult to survive as a refugee. “For two weeks now, we’ve been feeling a little relieved,” she said.

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Near the front line, new pits of mortars pierced the road.

The Ukrainian survey team’s confidence has been boosted by recent successes. Five days earlier, the Russians attacked with a large force of 50 to 60 men but were repulsed, said one of the officers, Filin, who gave his code name only in keeping with military protocol. Filin, 32, said they tried again the next day with a smaller force but were pushed back.

Then the Dnipro 1 team carried out an impromptu attack, throwing a grenade from a small commercial drone at a Russian armored vehicle where a group of soldiers had gathered. The next day they monitored the area and saw a dead man on the ground where the grenade had fallen, apparently left by his comrades.

“Then they stopped the attacks,” said another team member using the codename Conn. “They don’t like the sound of drones.”

The soldiers said the Russians resumed their constant artillery and mortar bombardment but did not attempt to advance again.

They said that some of the Russian soldiers seemed poorly trained and inexperienced. But others were skilled operators: They had jammers that interfered with drones and could maneuver their tanks to evade Ukrainian attacks — hiding in the woods and jumping into a fire before quickly disappearing, according to the Android-powered reconnaissance team leader.

However, after a month of hopping, the Ukrainians said they were confident they would continue to advance.

“For us, every meter of land restored, it gives us strength,” said Duke, the team’s company leader.