Motorcycles and Mayhem in Ukraine’s East

They first appeared as a cloud of dust on the horizon. A few seconds later, the motorcycles carrying Russian soldiers sped into view, zigzagging across a field, kicking up dust, attempting a noisy, dangerous run at a Ukrainian trench.

“They moved fast, they spread out and they swerved,” said Lt. Mykhailo Hubitsky, describing the Russian motorcycle assault he witnessed. It’s a type of attack that has been proliferating along the frontline this spring, adding a wild new element to the already violent, chaotic fighting.

Russian soldiers riding motorcycles, dirt bikes, quadricycles and dune buggies now account for about half of all attacks in some areas of the front, soldiers and commanders say, as Moscow’s forces attempt to use speed to cross exposed open spaces where its lumbering armored vehicles are easy targets.

These nonconventional vehicles have been turning up with such frequency that some Ukrainian trenches now overlook junk yards of abandoned, blown up off-road vehicles, videos from reconnaissance drones show.

The new tactic is the latest Russian adaptation for a heavily mined, continually surveilled battlefield, as Moscow’s forces work to achieve small tactical gains, often of just a few hundred yards.

The Russians’ farthest advance in the region is 15 miles from its starting point.

“We are fighting a war over every meter,” said Captain Yaroslav, an artillery commander with the 80th Air Assault Brigade, who earlier this week was firing rockets toward Russian lines. He provided only his first name for security reasons.

Russia nevertheless remains the army on the offensive. Over time, its gains have added up and the Russian military is now close to strategically important supply lines and towns in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Since capturing the city of Bakhmut in May 2023, a Russian offensive to the west advanced about three miles over more than a year. It is now stalled at a water canal near the town of Chasiv Yar.

But now the Russians are threatening to flank Ukrainian positions there, while also approaching a key Ukrainian supply line, the Pokrovsk-Kostyantynivka highway.

The risk to this supply route adds new urgency to the fighting along this section of the front. If the Russians take control of that road, or even threaten it, it would slow the flow of food, weapons and ammunition the Ukrainian army needs to fight in the Donbas. On Monday, two Russian missiles narrowly missed a key bridge on the highway. The strike left the bridge intact but resulted in fatalities and injuries, regional authorities said.

Beyond that, the Russian advance also threatens two Ukrainian-held towns, Toretsk and New York, the latter a small dot on the Ukrainian plains that took the name in the 19th century. If these towns fall, Russia would be poised to press on toward the largest remaining Ukrainian-held cities in the region, Kostyantynivka, Druzhkivka, Kramatorsk and Slovyansk.

Authorities this month stepped up evacuations of civilians from Toretsk and New York, removing the few remaining residents by vans amid heavy bombardment.

Inside the partially encircled towns, Russian artillery bombardments echo through mostly deserted streets. Plumes of gray smoke rise from strikes. Along nearly every block in New York is a small brick house with a roof smashed in by an artillery shell. In the Donbas, every town Russia has captured since its full-scale invasion in 2022 has been bombed to ruins.

The evacuations are done hastily, with residents having just a few minutes to load one or two bags into vans and part from houses they have occupied for lifetimes.

“Boom, boom, boom,” was how one evacuee, Alina Olyak, 69, a retired nurse, described conditions in the town of Toretsk over the past week as the Russian army made incremental advances over the fields.

“I say goodbye to my lovely city,” Ms. Olyak said. The Russian army is now about a mile from the city center. The van that evacuated Ms. Olyak on Monday was destroyed on Tuesday by a spray of shrapnel from a Russian rocket, wounding one of the volunteers who had been carrying out evacuations.

As its army advances, Russia has experimented with multiple approaches to crossing exposed fields. The latest is the assault of the motorcycles.

With reconnaissance drones ubiquitous in the skies over the Donbas, the armored vehicles of both armies are easy targets. The faster-moving motorcycles and buggies are harder to hit with artillery. The drawback is that they provide no protection for Russian soldiers, who are exposed to a hail of machine gun fire as they approach the trenches.

Sometimes the bikers get through if Russian artillery bombardments succeed in preventing Ukrainian soldiers from poking their heads above the trench. The tactic solves, though at great risk, a key tactical challenge of the war in Ukraine for both sides: how to cross a mined, open field while observed by drones and under artillery fire.

If they make it across a field, the riders cast aside their bikes, enter the Ukrainian trench and engage in close combat on foot.

“They jump off and start shooting,” said a Ukrainian sergeant, Sapsan, serving with the 47th Mechanized Brigade, who asked to be identified only by a nickname, in keeping with his unit’s security protocols. “These buggies and motorcycles are fast and fly right into our tree lines.”

Like the wave of infantry assaults that Russia used to capture Bakhmut last year, the motorcycle assaults result in huge casualties, Ukrainian soldiers say. These attacks have not supplanted the Russian military’s employing of its blunt advantage in numbers of artillery guns and quantity of ammunition to advance. It is an additional tactic.

The use of cheap, disposable dirt bikes and buggies helps conserve Russian armored vehicles as the Russian military resorts to drawing on stockpiles of outdated tanks dating to the Cold War.

The new motorcycle tactics are executed in tandem with another atypical form of attack that takes an opposite strategy of going in bulky and slowly. Russians weld sheet metal armor to tanks for protection against exploding drones, creating boxy structures the size of a house, known a turtle tanks. The gigantic, lumbering vehicles creak and crawl over the fields, and have become another bizarre sight turning up on Donbas battlefields.

On the fields, motorcycle riders have good visibility and can swerve to avoid mines that armored vehicle operators might not see, Ukrainian soldiers said. Or they ride along tracks left by armored vehicles in earlier assaults, knowing these routes will be free of mines.

But riders have no protection from artillery shrapnel exploding around them. And once they approach the Ukrainian trenches, they are exposed to a fusillade of machine gun fire.

“How they find people willing to do this, I don’t know,” said Volodymyr, a sergeant who also asked to be identified only by his first name, in keeping with military protocol. “Sometimes, none of them will make it, sometimes all of them.”

Ukraine also counters the motorcycle assaults with exploding quadcopter drones steered by an operator wearing virtual reality goggles, an improvised weapon that emerged in the war in Ukraine and has reshaped the battlefield for its ability to hit armored vehicles on the move.

All of these obstacles can prove lethal, as was the case for the assault that Lieutenant Hubitsky witnessed, when eight or nine dirt bike riders charged the Ukrainian trenches.

Once the riders came into range, Ukrainian soldiers opened fire with machine guns, Lieutenant Hubitsky said. The swerving dirt bikes were hard targets, he said. Some were hit, others not. But in that instance, too few Russians survived the ride to form an effective unit to storm the Ukrainian trench. The survivors, who abandoned their bikes at the edge of the field, were killed in close combat, he said.

That hasn’t deterred Russian commanders from continuing to employ the tactic. “All the tree lines,” said Sapsan, a sergeant in the 47th Brigade, “are now full of these buggies and motorcycles.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting from the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

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