The Ukrainian military said on Thursday that its troops were fighting “in the vicinities” of a village behind the eastern frontline town of Marinka, another strong indication that Kyiv’s forces have lost control of the town, more than a week after Moscow claimed to have seized it.
Open-source maps of the battlefield also show that Russian troops have a foothold throughout Marinka. Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top commander, acknowledged last week that Ukrainian troops had all but retreated to the outskirts, saying that Marinka “no longer exists” because Russian forces had reduced it to rubble with relentless shelling.
Several Ukrainian military analysts said that Ukrainian troops had established defensive lines just outside the town and were currently fending off further Russian advances.
“It seems that Ukrainian forces are out of Marinka but they continue fighting in defensive positions just outside of it,” said Oleksandr Musiienko, the head of the Kyiv-based Center for Military Legal Studies.
Although Marinka is in ruins, it stands as Russia’s most significant territorial advance since the fall of Bakhmut in May. While its control is unlikely to turn the tide of the war, the loss of the town would be further evidence that Moscow has firmly seized the initiative on the battlefield after Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive fell short of most of its goals.
“The Ukrainians are going to have a hard few months ahead,” said Jack Watling, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in Britain who focuses on land warfare.
Russia’s move into Marinka, a suburb of the city of Donetsk, followed months of grueling fighting in which Moscow’s forces crept through a city devastated by bombardment, in a reminder of the fierce battle for Bakhmut about 50 miles to the northeast.
Russian forces could next turn their sights on the nearby towns of Kurakhove, Vuhledar and Pokrovsk, bringing them another step closer to their goal of capturing the entire Donbas region. Freshly dug trenches now line cities and towns that months ago were considered out of reach of Russian forces.
“Our troops have the opportunity to establish a wider operational area,” President Vladimir V. Putin said in a video of a conversation with Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, on Dec. 25, referring to Marinka’s capture.
Ukrainian officials typically do not acknowledge when a town or city has fallen, but instead refer to forces operating in the vicinity. The Ukrainian military has declined to comment on Marinka beyond the daily battlefield updates it releases.
Russia’s success in Marinka is a symbolic blow to Ukraine’s military, which has failed to retake any large population center in the past year. Moscow is likely to try to highlight that to the Russian public before a presidential election set for March to indicate that it is winning the war despite suffering a huge number of dead and wounded. Mr. Putin is almost certain to win an election orchestrated in his favor, but he values the vote as a measure of purported domestic support.
Mr. Watling said that control of Marinka was not “particularly significant” strategically, because the town is now flattened and is not a critical logistics hub for Ukraine. “But the Russians are pretty keen to claim success,” he said, “so when they take places, they make a big deal of it.”
Since Ukraine’s counteroffensive stalled last fall, Russian forces have relentlessly attacked a string of towns along the eastern front. Russian forces have also been advancing on the nearby town of Avdiivka — a linchpin of Ukrainian defenses in the region.
The battle for Marinka illustrated defining features of Russia’s invasion that analysts say have given Moscow’s forces a major advantage: bombing a place to ruins and then sending in wave after wave of troops in bloody assaults, even if it means sustaining huge numbers of casualties.
Russian forces started deploying those tactics — battering cities with artillery and bombs from afar before sending in troops and armored vehicles for close combat — after retreating from Kyiv in the early days of the war and setting their sights on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
They captured the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in the summer of 2022, but then their offensive largely stalled. The capture of Bakhmut in May was Russian forces’ first major territorial gain in months — and the nearly yearlong battle for the city was the deadliest and most prolonged urban combat in Europe since World War II.
With Bakhmut, Russia got one step closer to achieving its objectives in the Donbas region. Then came Marinka.
As Russian forces slowly pushed through Ukrainian positions in Marinka, both sides blasted apartment buildings and houses, reducing the town to a wasteland. The town had a population of 9,000 before the war, according to a recent census. Today, is it mostly empty of civilians.
“The situation is exactly the same as it was in Bakhmut,” General Zaluzhny said at a news conference last week. “Ukrainian forces held Marinka for almost two years as the Russians annihilated it street by street, and then house by house.”
Open-source maps of the battlefield show that Russian forces controlled more than half of Marinka as far back as June. They made a final push to seize the town’s western edge in mid-December and claimed to be in full control of the area on Dec. 25. Maps of the battlefield by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, now show Russia having advanced to Marinka’s western boundaries.
But Marinka is now largely a pile of rubble, without much that could serve as a base for further incursions into Ukrainian territory. And Ukraine has had time to build fallback positions to try to thwart further Russian advances.
“The main significance lies not in the territory of the town itself but in those defensive lines west of Marinka,” said Serhii Kuzan, the chairman of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center, a research group, “and our defense forces continue to hold those positions.”
The Institute for the Study of War said last week that “Russian forces are highly unlikely to make rapid operational advances from Marinka,” citing a degradation in its capabilities.
Still, Russia reclaimed the offensive on the battlefield in 2023. Its brutal operations, including in Bakhmut and Marinka, enabled it to seize more land during the year than it has lost, a recent analysis by Estonia’s Ministry of Defense noted.
And Moscow’s victory in Marinka would be one more blow to the morale of the Ukrainian Army, which is now back on the defensive and struggling with manpower and ammunition shortages amid concerns about a potential shortfall in Western military assistance as it braces for another year of attritional fighting.
Seizing Marinka was a way for Moscow to tell the West, “We may not be making rapid progress, but we are making progress, and in spite of your support, the war is going our direction,” said Mr. Watling, the analyst.
“That’s the narrative that the Russians are going to push,” he said.
By Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting from Pokrovsk, Ukraine.