Near the city of Kherson, Ukraine
Crippled metal, charred debris and shattered glass cover the ground as a Ukrainian reconnaissance unit storms a Russian command center on the outskirts of the recently liberated city of Kherson.
“Come over here,” suddenly shouts one of the Ukrainian soldiers. “Bring the stretcher and first aid kit here.”
Moments later, a Russian soldier emerges from a bunker, wounded in the back of his legs. He is taken care of by Ukrainian soldiers who place him face down and apply first aid.
“We were stuck here and everyone ran,” he told Ukrainian soldiers. “I fell and stayed there until evening. They came and took my captain and that was it. They said they would come back for me but no one came.
The exchange was recorded by the reconnaissance team and shared with CNN. It offers valuable insight into the grueling battle for the key southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, which culminated in the Russian withdrawal from a strip of land on the west bank of the Dnipro River earlier this month, a major setback for the Kremlin war.
The Ukrainian unit says the Russian soldier was taken to safety and his injuries treated. But many of those sent here by the Kremlin faced a very different outcome.
“They’ve suffered big losses here,” reconnaissance unit chief Andrii Pidlisnyi told CNN, reviewing that along with some of the other footage he and his unit have collected over the past few months.
The 28-year-old captain, whose call sign is “Sneaky”, lived up to his name around Russian positions.
His forces have operated so close to enemy lines that they say they can hear Russian soldiers talking, cooking or chopping wood. The unit identified targets both visually and using drones, then passed the coordinates to Ukrainian artillery for targeting.
This unit includes some of the best-trained international volunteers who have arrived in Ukraine since the start of the war. Hailing from the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Germany, alongside other European countries, these volunteers have served their respective armies in the past and some have previously fought with Kurdish forces against the IS in Syria.
In drone video shared with CNN, Moscow soldiers are seen running in a trench as artillery shells rain down on them. The first salvos fall a little away from the target. But the reconnaissance soldiers, using the drone, send careful adjustments to the gunners. Seconds later, plumes of smoke and dust billow from Russian bunkers and trenches.
The horror of being under such bombardment is heightened by the sight of Russian soldiers running through the dust, frantically and in vain, seeking safety and cover as more and more explosive shells burst around them.
Throughout the summer and autumn this was the pattern of war on the Kherson front. Ukrainian reconnaissance soldiers said Russia had the advantage in terms of gun numbers – firing “80 rounds against 20”, says Pidlisnyi. But modern weapons from NATO and other Western allies sent to Ukraine later gave them the advantage in terms of accuracy. Eventually, after suffering what Pidlisnyi estimated to be “50%” casualties, the Russians withdrew.
“They lost a lot of people…because of our intelligence, because of our artillery and because of our rocket system, especially HIMARS and so on,” he says. “Before retreating, they lost, in the last month alone, about 90 tanks.”
“It’s a big loss for them, especially since they don’t have too much new equipment to bring to the front,” adds the reconnaissance chief.
The jubilation that followed Ukraine’s success in pushing Russia east away from the west bank of the Dnipro was a fairly new feeling for Pidlisnyi and his men.
“It was months and months of frustration,” said Jordan O’Brien. The 29-year-old New Zealander says he has flown around the world to do his part “to stand up to bullies” and has been fighting in southern Ukraine as part of an anti-tank unit since June.
“We were struggling to have an effect on the battlefield, it was very difficult to get to a position where we could see the Russian armour,” O’Brien explained. “It was dug very deep.”
Britain’s Macer Gifford shares a similar view. “The last few months have been absolutely intense,” said the 35-year-old Syrian war veteran. “The Russians used just about every dirty tactic in the book, including massive shelling of civilian areas. So it’s incredibly dangerous, boring, soul-destroying.
Russian forces captured Kherson and its surroundings within the first month of their invasion of Ukraine. They had time to dig in and fortify their positions, months before Kyiv announced a counter-offensive this summer. Russia used heavy artillery to keep Ukrainian forces at bay, intensifying its barrages shortly before its withdrawal.
“The last two weeks in particular have been pretty intense because we’ve had a tremendous amount of artillery,” Gifford said. The unit survived but the pressure was immense. “If anything is going to break you in this country, it will be the artillery,” O’Brien adds. “Fortunately, everyone is strong.”
Pidlisnyi and his men were overwhelmed with a sense of relief when they began to hear of a possible Russian retreat on the Dnipro.
“Sneaky” says that the Moscow armies began their withdrawal from Kherson under cover of darkness, November 8-9, moving their second and third defensive lines to Kherson and nearby villages. Their first line of defense was the last to move in the morning, Pidlisnyi said, leaving behind several rows of landmines to cover their retreat, hoping to ambush and slow down the Ukrainian forces.
By November 10, all Russian forces on the west bank had fallen back near the Dnipro and started crossing to the east bank, Pidlisnyi said. On November 11, the withdrawal was complete and confirmed by the Russian Ministry of Defense on its official Telegram channel.
Bronx-native Damien Rodriguez, the unit’s explosives expert, says he found it hard to believe the Russians just picked up and left.
“This is what liberation looks like”: Ukraine takes over Kherson
“We heard rumours, but we weren’t sure,” said Rodriguez, a 41-year veteran of the Kurdish campaign against ISIS. “I didn’t really believe it 100% until we got to the ground and saw that they had all left their positions.”
The months-long struggle is worth it in the end, he says.
“You see the villagers… you see everyone crying and thanking us for the help… for helping to liberate their village,” Rodriguez says. “It was the same as in Syria when we were liberating villages from ISIS.”
“The number of people taking to the streets, honestly, it felt like WWII… People were throwing flowers at us and everything. It was amazing,” adds Gifford.
After chaotic retreats first from Kyiv and then from Kharkiv, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that the withdrawal from Kherson was a calculated decision, professionally executed.
“Not a single piece of military equipment or armament was left on the right bank,” the ministry also said.
But “Sneaky” and his unit dispute this account. Although the Russian soldiers had about a week to prepare for the withdrawal, they still left in a hurry.
“We came with another intelligence unit to check their positions and found that they ran very quickly from the front line and left a lot of things, documents, etc.,” Pidlisnyi explains.
Video shared by the unit with CNN shows dozens of boxes of ammunition, military as well as personal documents. “They left behind a huge amount of ammunition, ranging from anti-aircraft to grenades to small arms,” Gifford says.
It was a good surprise for the men of the unit.
“I was able to recover very nice things because here in Ukraine we could be better equipped, we lack ammunition”, explains Rodriguez. “I use a drone and drop all types of payloads and set traps, so I have good detonators and extra grenades.
“We call it a reallocation of resources,” he adds.