At the first whistle of a shell, soldiers in a recently liberated but desolate Ukrainian village plunged into roadside weeds on Thursday and lay face down as explosions erupted.
“Is everyone alive?” we shouted when it was over. They were. The soldiers jumped to their feet and continued running past the smoke from the explosions.
After months of preparation and reinforced by hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles and howitzers donated by the West, Kiev scored small successes in the first week and a half of a counter-offensive to drive out the forces Russians from southern Ukraine. In heavy fighting on the plains, the army said it broke through a first Russian line of defense and recaptured seven villages.
The fruits of their labor could be seen during a visit with the Ukrainian military to one such village, Blahodatne, on Thursday, along with the daunting challenges ahead.
Ukraine has yet to commit the bulk of its reserves, including troops trained in Europe over the winter and spring and equipped with weapons from NATO countries, which means that it can bring even more strength. But with each step forward, his soldiers become more vulnerable – removed from the safety of their own trenches, closer to Russian artillery, maneuvering through minefields and unprotected from airstrikes.
Ukraine is engaged in two main thrusts to the south, where it has broken deepest into the chain of small villages that includes Blahodatne, where soldiers were diving for cover on Thursday.
For the Ukrainian soldiers of the 68th Scout Brigade entering the villages, the sweetness of liberating the land was tempered by the panorama of ruin that greeted them and what followed: relentless bombardment by Russian forces.
“They attack with rockets, howitzers, mortars, helicopters and drones,” said Sgt. Serhiy Gubanov said in an interview while hiding in a basement as explosions erupted outside.
“It’s the complete collection of intense experiences,” he said.
At one point, the metallic scream of an incoming howitzer sent all of the soldiers in the abandoned house, including the basement, to the ground. But there was no explosion. “Dud,” one said, getting up and dusting himself off.
Russia’s main defensive line, about nine miles from the village, is a dense belt of minefields, trenches, ditches to block armored vehicles and concrete barriers – known as dragon’s teeth – spread in lines on the fields and intended to stop the tanks.
After the first week and a half of fighting, Russia’s strategy is also in focus, Rob Lee, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said in a telephone interview.
The Russians try to inflict as many casualties and destroy as many vehicles as possible in a combat zone in front of the main defensive line, exhausting the Ukrainian forces before they reach it. In effect, this turns the area in front of the main defense line into a kill zone.
The Russian strategy, Lee said, is “to inflict attrition on Ukrainian units and withdraw without suffering too many casualties themselves.”
This is the area where the Ukrainian troops are now.
They are especially vulnerable immediately after capturing new ground, while they are still clearing mines, fighting Russian stragglers, and figuring out where to find shelter and firing positions in newly reclaimed villages and in groves of trees.
If the Russian strategy proves successful, Ukraine could lose too many of its newly trained troops – who number in the tens of thousands – and too many tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to cross the main line.
Even if they go that far, the forces might be too weak to head south and help achieve a major objective: cutting the so-called land bridge that connects Russia to the occupied Crimean peninsula. This would be done by reaching the Sea of Azov, about 60 miles away.
The fighting currently taking place is mainly taking place in two places about 80 km apart, south of Velyka Novosilka and south of Orikhiv. After the initial uncertainty, it appears to be more than just feints or exploratory attacks by Ukraine. By attacking in two places, Ukraine forces Russia to decide where to deploy reinforcements.
Both parties are now in a guessing game.
So far, the battle south of Velyka Novosilka, fought in the Donetsk region, where shadows of clouds played across fields of tall green grass, wildflowers, small lakes and swamps of reeds, went better for the Ukrainians than the fighting near Orikhiv, which is in the Zaporizhzhia region.
Hanna Malyar, deputy defense minister, said on Thursday that the counteroffensive was progressing “gradually but steadily”. General Oleksiy Hromov, deputy commander of operations at the General Staff, said Ukraine had advanced a total of 6.5 kilometers, or about four miles.
Soldiers from the 68th Brigade said a company of Russian soldiers – around 100 men – had been cut off as they retreated from the village of Blahodatne. The Ukrainians chased them, while trying to avoid artillery fire.
Those they have captured so far are poorly trained troops, including ex-convicts, suggesting that Russia had deployed more fighters it considered more durable near the front while retaining more capable ones. reserved.
Earlier this week, a Ukrainian fighter, Lt. Serhiy Hozhulovsky, driving a US-supplied armored personnel carrier, carried a Russian POW who was bound hand and foot, his eyes covered with duct tape.
In a cellphone video, the captured Russian can hear that he never fired his gun and asks to be allowed to stay in Ukraine.
“What will you do?” asks a Ukrainian soldier.
“I will work, I will build houses,” replies the Russian. “It is a sin to fight. I can’t fight.
Ukrainian soldiers say captives they have arrested over the past week often claim they did not shoot. In fact, many are “fighting to the bitter end,” said one soldier, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Mykola.
On Thursday, when troopers tasked with finding the stragglers first entered the village after Ukrainian assault teams had passed through, it was a strange and wrecked place. Almost every house had blown up and chest-high weeds were growing in the yards. Most of the inhabitants had long since fled.
On Thursday, at a command post in an abandoned house, a radio crackled announcing that a mortar shell had hit an armored vehicle, destroying it but not injuring the crew.
A commander, Captain Volodymyr Rovensk, sat in a dark room in front of computer screens as explosions rocked the house. The Russians nearby, he said, “are entrenched and there are mines everywhere.”
Around the village, the detritus of daily life for Russian soldiers lay: discarded boxes of military rations and, at one site, a book with pornographic images titled “The Love Machine”.
A Ukrainian soldier, Sergeant Yevhen, tried to smuggle a spoon issued by the Russian army as a souvenir out of the village, but then dropped it in the weeds while diving to take cover from the gunfire. artillery.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I was not killed. The spoon was not important.
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Konstantinople, Ukraine.