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Ukraine’s months-long preparation for its next counteroffensive to try to wrest back occupied territory has allowed Russia to fortify its positions along the almost 1,000km frontline.
Satellite images reviewed by the Financial Times and analysed by military experts revealed a multi-layered Russian network of anti-tank ditches, mazes of trenches, concrete “dragon’s teeth” barricades, steel “hedgehog” obstacles, spools of razor wire and minefields.
Vladimir Putin has hailed his first major victory since the early days of the invasion of Ukraine on Sunday, claiming Russian forces had captured the eastern city of Bakhmut despite Kyiv insisting the battle “was not over”.
Russia’s president said the paramilitary group Wagner had seized the Ukrainian city with help from Russia’s armed forces after a bloody, months-long battle that claimed more than 100,000 casualties and reduced the city to ruins.
Satellite images from the Vuhledar area, south of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, reveal the extent of damage in areas that have suffered intense artillery shelling.
On February 24 last year, the world awoke to news that Russian tanks had rolled into Ukraine from the east and north.
Troops had been massing on Ukraine’s borders for months and Russian leader Vladimir Putin had made a series of fiery speeches on the long-running conflict in the Donbas region.
There were fears that the war could be a short one, with Ukrainian troops potentially overrun in a matter of days. But that has not proved to be the case.
Ukrainian forces advanced into Kherson on 11 November after Russia said its forces had completed their withdrawal from the southern city, sealing one of the biggest setbacks to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
Kyiv’s progress and Moscow’s chaotic retreat across the Dnipro river, conducted under Ukrainian artillery fire, meant Russia had surrendered the only provincial capital it had captured in the war, as well as ceding strategic positions.
At the end of August, Ukraine launched its first big counter-attack since Russia’s full assault on the country began in February, even as Kyiv complained that its forces lacked sufficient heavy western weaponry to make a decisive strike.
The advance liberated 3,000 sq km of territory in just six days — Ukraine’s biggest victory since it pushed Russian troops back from the capital in March.
Ukraine’s forces continue to push east, capturing the transport hub of Lyman, near the north-eastern edge of the Donetsk province, which it wrestled from Russian control on October 1. The hard-fought victory came after nearly three weeks of battle and set the stage for a Ukrainian advance towards Svatove, a logistics centre for Russia after its troops lost the Kharkiv region in the lightning Ukrainian counter-offensive.
The shift in the conflict’s focus towards the Donbas region followed Russia’s failure to capture Kyiv during the first phase of the war. Before Ukraine’s rapid counter-offensive, marginal Russian gains in the east suggested the war was entering a period of stalemate.
The Russians were thwarted in Kyiv by a combination of factors, including geography, the attackers’ blundering and modern arms — as well as Ukraine’s ingenuity with smartphones and pieces of foam mat.
The number of Ukrainians fleeing the conflict has made it one of the largest refugee crises in modern history.
In mid-March, an attack on a Ukrainian military base, which had been used by US troops to train Ukrainian soldiers, added to Russia’s increasingly direct threats that Nato’s continued support of Ukraine risked making it an enemy combatant in the war. On March 24, Nato agreed to establish four new multinational battle groups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia to add to troops in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Sources: Institute for the Study of War, Rochan Consulting, FT research
Cartography and development by Steve Bernard, Chris Campbell, Caitlin Gilbert, Cleve Jones, Emma Lewis, Joanna S Kao, Sam Learner, Ændra Rininsland, Niko Kommenda, Alan Smith, Martin Stabe, Neggeen Sadid and Liz Faunce. Based on reporting by Roman Olearchyk and John Reed in Kyiv, Guy Chazan in Lviv, Henry Foy in Brussels and Neggeen Sadid in London.