KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — The explosions flashed vivid purple in opposition to the dimming panorama. Half a dozen mortar strikes in fast succession raised cones of deadly shrapnel and dust. Black smoke curled above the bushes.
There have been few automobiles on the muddy street resulting in the entrance line, and the commander of a Ukrainian reconnaissance group ordered his automotive to show round. Ukrainian troopers hugged the tree line for canopy beside an artillery gun.
The entrance line right here, about 60 miles northeast of town of Kherson, is a harmful zone the place fields, woods and homes have been blasted by artillery hearth, and troopers hunker down in scattered villages searching for a strategy to push ahead.
Ukraine has made dramatic positive factors with its latest counteroffensive within the south, thanks partially to a a lot strengthened artillery, but additionally to small specialised teams like this reconnaissance group penetrating enemy traces. Russian troops, nevertheless, have bolstered their defenses with reinforcements and Ukrainian troops nonetheless face a formidable job in breaking Russia’s maintain on this area, the reconnaissance commander mentioned.
“They’ve many greater than us, for each one in every of us they’ve 30,” he mentioned. “They introduced many into the Kherson area, very many, however regardless of all the pieces, we’re managing.”
The commander, who makes use of the code identify Chechen, and a tightknit group of males from the 129th Brigade of the Territorial Protection Forces have been serving to spearhead the Ukrainian counteroffensive in opposition to Russian troops in Kherson.
Their particular anti-sniper reconnaissance unit was introduced in to assist Ukrainian troops who had recaptured a bunch of villages in September however have been struggling to advance beneath withering Russian artillery hearth.
A former bodyguard, Chechen is Ukrainian, his code identify a reference to Caucasian ancestry on his mom’s facet. Amongst his unit have been a bunch of former troopers from Georgia, a few of whom had served within the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan. They now reside and work in Ukraine and joined the territorial protection when battle got here to the area.
Chechen visited Ukrainian troops on the entrance line in a village and mentioned that they have been taking heavy casualties, and that the artillery hearth was stopping ambulances from getting in to retrieve the wounded.
“On daily basis we have been burying our guys,” Chechen mentioned. A Russian mortar group was hitting the village from 400 yards away. “There was not a single home left. Within the village we have been hiding in cellars. A number of occasions we survived a direct hit. I can let you know it was hell on earth.”
For weeks there had been discuss of a Ukrainian counterattack within the Kherson area however an advance from the north in September had floor to a halt. The Ukrainians got here beneath crushing hearth in settlements that they had recaptured as Russian troops poured artillery and airstrikes down on the positions that they had simply deserted.
In late September Chechen was requested to scout out and disable enemy models — snipers, artillery spotters and drone pilots — who have been guiding within the hearth on Ukrainian positions.
“We began working, regularly began seeing their individuals, began taking them out one after the other with mortars, with snipers,” Chechen mentioned. “First we completed one wing, then the second.”
The breakthrough got here in early October when Chechen’s group crawled shut sufficient to direct artillery hearth of its personal on Russian positions that have been dug in alongside a tree line going through the village.
“They realized we might see their positions,” he mentioned. “As we began shelling, they realized, they usually gave the order to retreat. They began operating away. Solely then did we enhance the scenario in our favor.”
“Inside two, three days we turned across the course of occasions,” he mentioned. “We discovered their weak spot. We discovered the place we might unscrew the nut. It’s the job of reconnaissance to seek out the weak spot.” That they had some luck too, “army luck,” as he referred to as it.
Returning to the location of the battle, Chechen surveyed the smashed Russian trenches and deserted belongings amid splintered bushes and a destroyed tank.
“This tank was driving out, firing from behind that tree line,” he mentioned. Additional alongside, he identified one other battle website.
“You’ll be able to see each 10 meters that they had firing positions within the tree line,” he mentioned. “That they had such a thick protection, I can not describe it. Each foxhole was firing, each bush was firing.”
“The breaking level was we waited them out beneath hearth,” he mentioned. “The Russians thought that we’d by no means give you the option of their lives to move by this fashion. They mentioned it was unbreakable. However God determined in another way.”
A number of of his males — Ukrainian volunteers from the regional city of Kryvyi Rih, who joined the Territorial Protection Forces when Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February — mentioned he led them in prayer earlier than each operation, including, solely half-jokingly, that he had a direct line to God that had saved them protected.
As soon as Russian troops began retreating, the unit adopted in pursuit. “Their tanks escaped this fashion and until now we’re chasing them,” Chechen mentioned.
The Russians had mined the tree traces and approaches to their positions so closely that he selected to pursue them alongside the street quite than beneath cowl of the bushes. On foot, within the early morning fog, his unit walked alongside the street south.
“This street was all lined in clay, we had clay sticking to our boots,” he mentioned. “Now it’s already cleared by vehicles driving by.”
Mines have been additionally laid on the street however they have been in a position to navigate them. “There have been so many mines and we didn’t have de-miners,” he mentioned.
Over two days they pushed south by a collection of villages, discovering demise and destruction at each step.
“I used to be a bodyguard, I’ve seen lots, however I’ve by no means seen such a factor. Cows lifeless. A goat ran after us like a canine and was hiding with us,” he recounted. “Persons are mendacity, cows are mendacity, geese, canine are mendacity lifeless. And we’re crawling. There’s a cow’s carcass, however you retain crawling.”
His males confirmed movies taken on their cellphones that confirmed most of the particulars of his account: the unit advancing alongside a fogbound street, a goat operating amongst them, a soldier greeting his cousin in a liberated village.
In addition they had video of one in every of their troopers wounded in a mine explosion being evacuated. The mine was a booby entice, they mentioned, hooked up to a Makarov pistol left mendacity in an deserted Russian place.
In describing the combating in Kherson to The New York Occasions, Chechen clearly needed recognition for his unit’s achievements, describing how the principle military models typically dismissed the territorial protection because the lowest within the army hierarchy, however then typically despatched them first into battle.
However he was additionally stuffed with reward for the Ukrainian troopers on the entrance line.
“The true heroes are the fellows who have been holding and managed to outlive,” he mentioned. “We perceive after we go ahead that there’s little likelihood we are going to return. However when you’re sitting in a trench, you don’t know when it’s going to finish. He doesn’t know the way lengthy he has to remain there — that’s horrifying.”
A few of the Russian models have been worthy opponents, displaying good techniques, he mentioned. “The paratroopers struggle truthfully. They struggle nicely,” he mentioned. The Ukrainians have been extra freewheeling, he mentioned.
“We’re extra loopy, we improvise extra, and they don’t have that — they struggle by the requirements, and we trick them on a regular basis,” he mentioned.
Consuming tea round a kitchen desk in a village close to the entrance line one night final week, Chechen talked by the subsequent operation along with his prime officers. He went again and again the drill for strolling by a mined space and react when beneath assault.
The Russians might see all the pieces, which was why that they had shelled the street earlier, he informed them, knocking down the temper.
“It’s going to be very harmful,” he mentioned. “Very.”
Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting.