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“They used everything on us,” said Denys, a 33-year-old Ukrainian soldier whose unit fell back from a Russian-held village after a lengthy barrage of cluster bombs, phosphorous munitions and mortars. “Who can survive an attack for five hours like that?” he said.
Denys and eight other Ukrainian soldiers from seven different units provided rare descriptions of the Kherson counteroffensive in the south, the most ambitious military operation by Kyiv since the expulsion of Russian forces at the perimeter of the capital in the spring. As in the battle for Kyiv, Ukraine’s success is hardly assured and the soldiers’ accounts signaled that a long fight, and many more casualties, lie ahead.
“We lost five people for every one they did,” said Ihor, a 30-year-old platoon commander who injured his back when the tank he was riding in crashed into a ditch.
Ihor had no military experience before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. He made a living selling animal feed to pig and cow farms. His replacement as platoon commander also has no previous military experience, he said.
The soldiers were interviewed on gurneys and in wheelchairs as they recovered from injuries sustained in the offensive. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid disciplinary action. Others, like Denys and Ihor, agreed to reveal only their first names. But most spoke plainly about the disadvantages they faced.
Russia’s Orlan drones exposed Ukrainian positions from more than a kilometer above their heads, they said, an altitude that meant they never heard the buzz of the aircraft tracking their movements.
Russian tanks emerged from newly built cement fortifications to blast infantry with large-caliber artillery, the wounded Ukrainian soldiers said. The vehicles would then shrink back beneath the concrete shelters, shielded from mortar and rocket fire.
Counter-battery radar systems automatically detected and located Ukrainians who were targeting the Russians with projectiles, unleashing a barrage of artillery fire in response.
Russian hacking tools hijacked the drones of Ukrainian operators, who saw their aircraft drift away helplessly behind enemy lines.
Ukraine has discouraged coverage of the offensive, resulting in an information lag on a potentially pivotal inflection point in the nearly seven-month conflict.
When Ihor fired on Russian soldiers with his Kalashnikov rifle this week, he said, it was his first time shooting at a human being. “You don’t think about anything,” he said. “You understand, if you don’t do it, they will do it.”
Despite the challenges, Ihor said he is eager to return to the front line as soon as he heals. “My people are there. How can I leave them?” he said.
Other soldiers won’t be returning to the battlefield.
a 28-year-old former construction worker, lost his arm in a mortar
blast during the counteroffensive last week. He winced with phantom pain
in his hospital bed on Sunday, saying he felt a sting from the fingers
and hand that were no longer connected to his body.
Oleksandr said the Russian artillery fire was relentless. “They were just hitting us all the time,” he said. “If we fire three mortars, they fire 20 in return.”
The Ukrainian soldiers said they had to carefully ration their use of munitions but even when they did fire, they had trouble hitting targets. “When you give the coordinates, it’s supposed to be accurate, but it’s not,” he said, noting that his equipment dated back to 1989.
Oleksandr had never traveled to Kherson before the war, but he said the goal of expelling Russian invaders was worth sacrificing a limb. “It’s our country,” he said.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine’s forces retook two villages in the Kherson region, and one of his aides posted an image of the Ukrainian flag being hoisted over the village of Vysokopillya over the weekend.
“Ukrainian flags are returning to the places where they should be,” Zelensky said in a video address. But it was impossible to gauge what progress Ukrainian forces have made in their push to expel the Russian invaders from Kherson.
The region, which was captured by Russia earlier in the war, forms a crucial part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s coveted “land bridge” to Crimea, the peninsula that Russia invaded and annexed in violation of international law in 2014.
Russian electronic warfare also posed a constant threat. Soldiers described ending their shifts and turning on their phones to call or text family members — a decision that immediately drew Russian artillery fire.
“When we turn on mobile phones or radio, they can recognize our presence immediately,” said Denys. “And then the shooting starts.”
Despite the ban on media visits to the front line, there were signs that Russia’s grip on Kherson might be loosening.
In a statement on Monday, a Kremlin-backed occupation authority said that plans for a staged referendum in the Kherson region, a precursor to Russian annexation, were put on hold due to security issues. The Russian statement was later walked back, but it gave the Ukrainians optimism and suggested that, at the least, the counteroffensive was causing some disarray for the Russians.
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