Russia captures part of a key hilltop town in Ukraine, opening door to further advances

CNN — Russian troops have taken control of parts of a key hilltop town in eastern Ukraine, a strategic gain that could pose major problems for Ukrainian troops trying to defend the area from further advances.

The relatively small town of Chasiv Yar has played an outsized role in the conflict and has been battered by months of intense fighting. Sitting on high ground, it is seen as a gateway to the parts of the Donetsk region that are still in Ukrainian hands. The town overlooks the lower-laying areas to the north, towards the bigger cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, and to the west towards Dnipropetrovsk region.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Thursday that its troops have taken over the easternmost district of Chasiv Yar.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian military said that Kyiv forces retreated from the district after their defensive positions were destroyed and it became clear that efforts to hold onto the neighborhood were becoming “inexpedient” because of the risk to the defending troops.

“Over the last day, 238 attacks from all types of weapons were recorded in the Chasiv Yar area,” Nazar Voloshyn, the spokesperson for Ukraine’s “Khortytsia” operational and strategic grouping, told a Ukrainian national television channel.

At the same time, Ukrainian monitoring group DeepState said Russian forces were reportedly moving towards a strategically important road that connects Bakhmut, which has been in Russian hands for more than a year, with Konstantinivka and Pokrovsk. The road is a key supply line for the Ukrainian military.

The withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from parts of Chasiv Yar is a troubling development for Kyiv as it focuses on stabilizing the frontlines following months of relentless Russian assaults.

Moscow took advantage of the acute shortages of ammunition experienced by Kyiv due to delays in Western military aid in the first half of this year, trying to pierce Ukraine’s defensive lines alongside the eastern frontline. It even launched a surprise cross-border offensive in northern Ukraine in order to force Kyiv to pull some troops away from the east.

But the situation was starting to look better for Ukraine in recent weeks after Western weapons finally started arriving on the frontlines. A possible major Russian offensive towards Kharkiv, the second-largest Ukrainian city, was averted and the eastern front appeared more stable.

Higher ground

Ukraine has insisted that it is still firmly in control of the western parts of Chasiv Yar and that the withdrawal from the eastern part was a tactical decision.

DeepState, the monitoring group, said the district “has been completely wiped out” and “holding it in ruins” would only increase losses. “Leaving the neighborhood is a logical, albeit a difficult decision,” it said.

The town had a pre-war population of about 12,000, but has been mostly deserted for months. Vadym Filashkin, the head of Donetsk regional military administration, said in May that some 679 civilians were still in Chasiv Yar, refusing to evacuate their homes.

“Capturing Chasiv Yar would allow the Russians to bring in more (First Person View) drones, drone operators and artillery into the area, and it would give them an advantageous position to conduct ground strikes and drone strikes on Ukrainian troops,” Konrad Muzyka, a defense analyst who has been tracking the conflict closely, told CNN in an interview.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no secret of the fact that he wants his forces to control the whole of Donestk. The region was dissected in half when the war broke out in 2014 after Russian-backed rebels seized government buildings in towns and cities across eastern parts of the region.

While Russia took control of a other parts of Donetsk following the launch of its full-scale invasion in February 2022, it never managed to occupy the whole of the region. If Chasiv Yar was to fall to Russian hands, it could put bigger cities to the west at risk.

“Chasiv Yar the largest settlement on the way to Kramatorsk, so if Russians were to capture it, then the Ukrainians would not necessarily have the chances to rely on urban settlements to decrease the tempo of Russian attacks,” Muzyka said.

Advancing through an urban environment is much more difficult compared to open terrain.

Chasiv Yar itself has been the epicenter of the fight for months. Bakhmut, which sits about 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of Chasiv Yar, fell to Russia at a huge cost to its troops in May 2023, after many months of intense fighting. By the time Moscow claimed control over the city, it was almost completely destroyed.