Russian attacks have turned the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk into a “hell,” President Volodymyr Zelensky has said, drawing attention to one of the war’s most entrenched battlegrounds even as the country celebrated the recapture of the southern city of Kherson.
A rout of Russian forces in parts of the Kharkiv region in the northeast in September had raised the prospect that Ukrainian forces might advance quickly in Donetsk, one of four Ukrainian provinces, including Kherson, that President Vladimir V. Putin has illegally declared to be part of Russia.
Donetsk presents a stiff challenge, military analysts say, in part because a section of it was seized by separatists backed by Moscow in 2014 and they have had years to dig defensive positions.
“There are extremely brutal battles there every day,” Mr. Zelensky said in a speech late on Saturday. “But our units defend themselves bravely, withstand the terrible pressure of the occupiers, and maintain our defense lines.”
He named four towns, including Marinka and Avdiivka, that run from north of Donetsk’s capital to the southwest as sites of “particularly tough battles.”
There was no independent confirmation of the reports, but the head of the Ukrainian regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Sunday in a post on the messaging app Telegram that 1,204 civilians had been killed since February, mainly in missile strikes, and more than twice that number had been wounded.
Russia’s loss of Kherson city to a Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in August is a testament to the failure of Moscow to achieve its military objectives in the south of the country. Donetsk shows its struggles in the east.
The Kremlin announced in April that its military priority was to capture all of Donetsk and the neighboring region of Luhansk, which together are known as the Donbas. By July it could claim to have captured the last city in Luhansk, though Ukraine has gained some ground in the area in recent weeks. In Donetsk, by contrast, Moscow has made little recent progress. Indeed, months of fighting in the region has yielded few concrete gains for either side.
Even an attempt by Russian forces led by the Wagner Group, a private military force controlled by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who is a close associate of Mr. Putin, to pierce Ukrainian defenses at the city of Bakhmut is yet to bear fruit.
Some military analysts said that the recapture of Kherson in recent days after Russian forces withdrew under pressure might enable Ukraine to shift forces as well as artillery east to Donetsk and Luhansk.
“We shouldn’t dismiss Ukraine’s chances of achieving further gains over the winter,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a research group based in Philadelphia.
Separatists backed by Moscow declared breakaway republics in 2014 in Luhansk and Donetsk and fighting since then has created a series of jagged front lines in the region.
Russia’s defense ministry said in a report issued on Saturday that its forces had faced opposition as they advanced in two villages southwest of Donetsk city and one, Stepnoye, to its northeast. For its part, Ukraine’s general staff said in a Facebook post on Sunday that it had “repelled Russian attacks” in a string of towns and villages in the region.
The pro-Russian mayor of Horlivka, a town northeast of Donetsk city, said on Sunday on Telegram that a Ukrainian missile strike had destroyed a hotel in the town. He gave no details of casualties.