Russians are advancing in the Northeast, toward Kupiansk, while Ukraine presses its offensive in the South, each hoping to force the other to redeploy its forces.
Russian forces have drawn closer to Kupiansk, in northeastern Ukraine, prompting stepped-up calls for civilians to flee and reflecting the hard choices both sides must make about where to send reinforcements along a front that stretches for hundreds of miles.
Kupiansk, a small city about 25 miles from the border with Russia, has been under regular Russian artillery bombardment for months, and a 45-year-old civilian was killed on Tuesday when the meat processing plant where he worked as a security guard was struck, officials said.
Russia’s military has put Kupiansk, already battered and mostly depopulated, in its cross hairs, hoping to prompt Ukraine to come to the city’s defense by siphoning soldiers away from its own counteroffensive in the South and Southeast.
Ukrainian commanders, in turn, hope that the slow gains they are making in that counteroffensive will force the Russians to redeploy forces from Kupiansk to those battlefields.
The Russians have advanced to within a few miles of the city, and on Friday the top Ukrainian general in the East called publicly for more reinforcements to hold them back.
“The Russians seem to be making some progress” around Kupiansk, Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, acknowledged during a news conference on Monday.
Heavily damaged buildings in the center of Kupiansk earlier this month.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times
Ukrainian officials have been saying for months that civilians needed to leave the area and in early August, they declared a mandatory evacuation for 11,000 people remaining near the front lines in the Kupiansk district.
But most of those residents appear to have defied the order. Only some 1,400 people, including 343 children, have left, according to Oleh Syniehubov, the head of the regional military administration.
“We continue to work on the evacuation of the civilian population from dangerous regions of the Kupiansk district,” Mr. Syniehubov said in a post on the Telegram messaging app on Monday.
Kupiansk fell to Moscow’s forces shortly after the February 2022 invasion, and they used it as a logistical hub until it was retaken by the Ukrainians last September, when they drove the Russians out of most of the Northeast. Since then, Moscow’s forces have pounded Kupiansk with artillery, preventing any return to a semblance of normal life.
Many residents fled the invasion last year. Some have returned to find neighborhoods in ruins. As in the long, bloody fights they waged to gain control of Mariupol and Bakhmut, the Russian forces have demonstrated their willingness to flatten a city in order to seize it.
Still, some of those remaining in Kupiansk say they do not want to leave their lifelong homes. Many are elderly and in poor health, and fear economic insecurity if they relocate.
“I don’t know what I’ll do if I’m evacuated,” said Oleksandr Shapoval, 63, who lives in an area in western Kupiansk that has been relatively spared by the shelling. “Here, we have a small house, we have a small vegetable garden. We have something here.”
Mr. Shapoval, speaking by telephone, said he suffered from heart problems and high blood pressure. The shelling has intensified in recent weeks and “the Russians are coming,” he said. But he added that he thought the city would hold and that he was staying to help the Ukrainian troops by cooking for them and doing their laundry.
“I don’t think that Kupiansk will surrender,” Mr. Shapoval said.
Some Western officials have said that Ukraine should concentrate all the forces it can on the southern counteroffensive. But President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has dismissed the criticism, saying that Ukrainian forces would not be shifted away from defending places like Kupiansk.
Britain’s ministry of defense said on Friday that “there is a realistic possibility Russia will increase the intensity of its offensive efforts” in northeastern Ukraine. It added that Russian forces would probably try to advance west to the Oskil River, which runs through Kupiansk from north to south. Russian forces could then use the river as a natural barrier against further Ukrainian attacks.
Ukrainian soldiers holding guard at a defensive position outside Kupiansk earlier this month.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times
But recent reports from Western military analysts have suggested that the reverse might be taking place — that Russia’s military might be moving forces from the east to the south to reinforce its defenses there, which could ease the pressure on Kupiansk.
Since June, Ukraine has been on the offensive, trying to drive a wedge southward into Russian-occupied territory, splitting and severing Moscow’s supply lines. One Ukrainian thrust is aimed at the city of Melitopol and another at the city of Berdiansk, both in the Zaporizhzhia region, but each has advanced only a few miles in the face of elaborate Russian defenses.
At the same time, the Ukrainians have made some gains to the west of those battles, in the Kherson region, and to the northeast, around Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, which the Russians have fully held since May.
In the Donetsk region, Ukrainian officials said that Russian bombardment of a dozen villages on Tuesday had killed five civilians and wounded four. Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the regional military administration, posted on Telegram several pictures that showed destroyed houses and the ceiling of a house pierced by what appeared to be the skeleton of a cluster rocket, a weapon that opens in midair to dispense bomblets over a large area.
The authenticity of the images could not be independently verified.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dzvinka Pinchuk contributed reporting.