There is usually a long way between what a political leader wants and reality, but when it comes to war, the distance can be unfathomable. Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, confirmed on July 23 that the campaign to recapture Russian-held territories in the south of the country was already underway. Zelenskyy was referring to the expected counter-offensive against the city of Kherson on the Black Sea coast, which fell into Russian hands early in the invasion and represents Ukraine’s worst strategic defeat of the war. However, the military units interviewed by EL PAÍS on the front warn that this goal is far from achievable without first multiplying the stockpile of weapons and the number of qualified soldiers.
Dust seeps through every skin pore of the men of Ukraine’s 17th Armored Brigade, on the front line between the Dnipro and Kherson Oblasts. Even if they blow their nose, the piece of paper they use turns black. Vladislav Tuzuritza, whom his comrades call The Georgian, is the gunner of a “Rapira”, a Soviet 100 mm anti-tank gun. During the day he lies on a mattress under the trees; At night, when the invader is shelling his positions with artillery, he sleeps in the trench. They live next to the canyon and are stocked with stacks of water bottles, sacks of onions, sacks of potatoes, and cans of detergent. They haven’t been able to get close to Russian lines for too many weeks, he says. It’s normal for Ukrainians and Russians to be three or four kilometers apart. In this sector of the front, near the village of Kochubeivka, they are separated by 12 kilometers. They can’t even shoot for fear of being identified by Russian drones. “My main problem are the drones,” confirms Tuzuritza.
The Georgian refers to unmanned vehicles that make it easy for gunners to correct their target’s position. “In the last two weeks we shot down two Russian drones at this point on the front. We used to shoot down six drones every day.” The person providing this example is Andrei Lahouvka, lieutenant in the brigade. Frail and small in stature, he contrasts with the battle-hardened and weather-beaten demeanor of his subordinates. “Don’t get confused,” says Tuzuritza, “we spent two weeks taking out a Russian sniper. And do you know who found him? The Lieutenant”.
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Lahouvka, like most of the soldiers interviewed, paints a bleak picture: “We’re running out of ammunition and the Russians know it, and now they’re moving with more confidence”; “We need more powerful vehicles to move our guns, the ones we have are slow and an easy target”; “To launch an offensive, we need much more artillery fire, more multi-missile launchers and anti-aircraft batteries, only then can the infantry advance.”
About 40 kilometers to the east, behind the so-called “zero line of the front”, the counter-offensive actually began. “In one month we liberated 11 villages,” says Serhii Shatalov, a colonel in the 98th Tactical Infantry Battalion. This 29-year-old with 12 military experience has a personality that makes him a natural leader and respected by his 600 soldiers. In perfect English, learned at a US military academy, Shatalov also wants to convey the message that without more weapons and better trained troops, the counteroffensive remains a promise: “If they want us to move forward, we need more tanks because the Russians have much more tanks, and we also need more medical supplies because infantry losses will be high.
The 98th Tactical Battalion changes quarters regularly. “No one knows where I sleep, they tried to kill me twice already,” says Shatalov with a smile. His command post last week was a former Soviet vacation center for employees of a local industry. The only one who is not allowed to obey the colonel’s orders is his dog, a French bulldog puppy, who runs around the town biting the military’s shoes and pants. Sergeant Major Serhii Taranenko, the puppy climbs on him and bites his holster. Taranenko caresses him while describing some of the changes he’s spotted in the enemy: “Despite their weapon superiority, they’re afraid of hand-to-hand combat, they have no motivation.”
This is an advantage that has given them access to until recently occupied villages, Taranenko says. Another factor is the network of neighbors in the occupied territories who inform them of Russian movements. During the inspection of the zero line with officers of the Army High Command for the South Region, one of the EL PAÍS delegation members explains that he is in constant telephone contact with farmers on the other side of enemy lines to inform them immediately about the launch of Russian surveillance drones. On the horizon, barely two miles away, Russian shells fell one by one on the defending army’s trenches. The answer is not long in coming, it is the roar of the M-777 guns, one of Ukraine’s most valued western weapons.
Lahouvka also shows this newspaper a new computer program developed in Ukraine, not officially reported, that allows each unit to locate potential enemy targets within its radius of action, confirmed or to be confirmed, and those that support Ukrainian partisan networks reported in the occupied territory.
Zelenskyi has announced that to complete the counteroffensive, the armed forces must increase the number of troops to one million – according to a census by the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, about 750,000 men are currently engaged in defensive operations. Taranenko believes that before increasing the infantry, the priority is to improve communication between the different branches of the army and, most importantly, to improve the training of soldiers. “It doesn’t matter if they’re a million or ten million if they’re not well prepared,” says Shatalov. “I already relieve my soldiers with reservists and volunteers and I can say that it is very difficult to replace a regular soldier. And to attack instead of defend, training is essential,” he adds.
Alexander Yakorenko is 48 years old and has been at the front for five months. He wasn’t a working day away from the war. The battalion cannot afford it, now the care of the wounded is in the foreground. Yakorenko rests for a moment on a sofa in the reception area of the sanatorium-turned-barracks. He did it in a ditch twenty minutes ago. “Our job is to get the Russians out of there, we’ve removed them two kilometers, but without weapons we’re still sitting in the trenches,” explains the almost two-meter-tall man with a friendly look. “Because the drones move freely, the Russians are more effective in attacking. If we had better artillery, drones, and anti-aircraft batteries, we’d throw them out quickly.”
Shatalov, his commander, asserts that the arrival of the US-supplied Himar long-range multiple launcher missiles at the scene was noticed because they disrupt the Russian supply chain, primarily by destroying the main arsenals. “There are nights when it’s quiet and that’s because of the Himar.” Meanwhile, the Russians are improving their entrenchments and mining everything from crop fields to buildings, even with banned weapons, according to international treaties, according to sources consulted by the 98th Tactical Battalion.
Sergeant Major Serhii Golup is 32 years old and leads an anti-tank team of the 17th Tank Brigade: it is he and his men who organize ambushes against Russian tanks in order to destroy them with the famous Javelin man-portable missiles. Golup is another veteran who, despite his age, speaks plainly: “The Javelins are weapons to defend, but you need more armor to attack. To counterattack with the minimum guarantees, we would need three times more ammunition and three times more soldiers, but to do really well we would need to multiply our resources fivefold.”
Shatalov does not want to risk what could happen if Russia’s defenses in Kherson are further strengthened and winter comes, when the movement of armored vehicles on frozen terrain will become easier, but he realizes that the fate of the war depends on the provision of weapons The Ukraine with her allies.
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