Ukrainian army sizes up the enemy


A Ukrainian walks in front of a destroyed Russian tank in Yatskivka village, Ukraine, October 4, 2022.  (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

A Ukrainian walks in front of a destroyed Russian tank in Yatskivka village, Ukraine, October 4, 2022. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

STAVKY, UKRAINE — Running down the road with his men in pursuit of retreating Russian soldiers, the battalion commander came across an abandoned Russian armored vehicle. That engine is still running. Inside was a sniper rifle, a rocket-propelled grenade, a helmet, and personal belongings. The men are gone.

“They dropped everything. Personal belongings, helmets,” said the commander, who goes by the codename Swat. “I think it was the Special Forces, but they were panicking. It was raining very hard and the roads were bad, so they dropped everything and moved on.”

After months of static fighting and holding the line under waning Russian artillery fire, Ukrainian soldiers destroyed Russian lines in the northeast three weeks ago and Russian forces earlier this year. They recaptured nearly the entire Kharkov province, as well as the territories of each of the four regions that President Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed for Russia. did.

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There was little time for reflection for the Ukrainians, who continued to pressurize retreating Russian forces and press for a counterattack focused on preventing regrouping. But after months of not seeing the enemy in the trenches, Ukrainian soldiers and commanders now have the chance to engage Russian forces up close and upsize their opponents.

“We have the power to do this,” Swat said. “Now they’re panicking, so they’re really panicking.”

Swat, a 58-year-old career soldier, retired to join the Carpathian Sich, a volunteer battalion, after his predecessor was killed in action near Izium in June.

The battalion is at the forefront of the battle, providing flanking support in the battles of the strategically important cities of Izium and Lyman in recent weeks. Four days earlier, the battalion had captured another town further east, helping to secure a series of dams and the last settlement in Ukraine’s North Donetsk province.

Fighting progressed rapidly, causing a great deal of panic on the part of the Russians during their flight from Izium. According to Swat, after the capture of Izium, his unit pursued the Russian forces his 15-mile journey in one day. A few more days later, Ukrainian forces were at Lyman’s Gate, 30 miles south of Izium. Swat’s group moved east to block Russian attempts to send reinforcements.

On the day Lyman fell, his battalion was attacking another town further east. He asked not to disclose the location for security reasons. His force captured the town in one day without loss, although nine soldiers were wounded. By the third day, they had searched and secured the town and turned it over to another group so they could withdraw and recharge.

After three weeks of overwhelming success and minimal losses, the battalion lost five men to a Russian missile attack and Swat lost a close friend when his car hit a mine. Swat was driving, but he survived a concussion.

With tears in his eyes when he told the story of his friend in an interview, he asked reporters not to sugarcoat the events of the war with only success stories.

At the Battle of Izium, he said, Swat was preparing to attack when he saw the Russian forces suddenly retreating. A Ukrainian brigade attacking from the north seized the main road, cutting off the supply lines of Russian forces, his deputy commander said.

They hastened the timing of their attack, with troops rushing in from the south and occupying high points within the city.

Swat said Russian armored vehicles were defending and firing machine guns. “But people were so excited that nobody stopped them,” he said. “I was running with a pistol. It’s like a small feeling of victory. It’s incredible, you feel it in your heart, you’re happy.

“We got this hill,” he said.

He said the men were firing their weapons but were not listening when he ordered them to stop firing. It was only a minor firefight, given that the Russians had already retreated, but the capture of Izium gave them great confidence. Three months of grueling fighting, he said, proved justification for the loss of so many lives.

As they rushed down the road south from Izium after retreating the Russians, they captured an enemy soldier who was eating and sleeping in a forest camp. “They were surprised. He’s seven of them,” he said. “No one expected us to go through the woods after lunch.”

Some Russians were demoralized and terrified, he said, and the hungry were ready to give up. However, some continued to fight, believing the Russian teaching that the Ukrainians would torture and kill them if they allowed them to be captured.

On one occasion, Swat said, a Russian soldier killed himself by pulling out a grenade pin and saying he would never be taken prisoner. “We jumped on him, but it was too late,” he said. “So they’re brave soldiers, and they’re afraid.”

He said his battalion took more than 30 Russians prisoner in seven months of fighting, 23 of whom fought back. “We just take information from them, give them water, food, warm clothes and send them to a higher level,” he said.

It was a steep learning curve for his men, not only in survival but in humanity. He said one of his tense moments was when a Russian prisoner of war had a glass of water to drink.

However, the combat units had little time to pursue the deserters.

In some places, locals said they were sheltering Russian soldiers who had escaped from the garrison or were left behind, but Swat said he had no time to stop. And in recent days, Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance has used good military tactics to pursue Russian troops retreating on foot through the woods — dispersed and moving slowly — but again his forces have followed them. was too constrained to keep track of

A platoon commander named Boris said that his forces had made several attacks on Igeum from the southwest several weeks before the counterattack, inviting the Russians to reinforce in that direction. They didn’t expect it when they came, he said.

It wasn’t without resistance.

The Russians were often set up in well-dug machine gun nests, some Ukrainian commanders and soldiers said. As the Russian forces withdraw, heavy bombardment by Russian aircraft, artillery and long-range missiles is likely. A powerful missile strike destroyed the former Russian military headquarters in the town they recently seized, killing five of his men, he said.

“It was like a cold water shower,” Swat said. Of the five who died, he said: they were young men. ”

Of all the recent defeats, he said he never thought the Russian army was broken. “They will fight, they will keep fighting,” he said. “It’s a Slavic mentality to fight for your friends. Some friends have died.”

He and his subordinates all expressed concern about the mobilization in Russia and the new power it would bring to the Russian side.

Swat said the Ukrainian army has been strengthened but not yet where it needs to be. “It was a very difficult time because of all these small victories,” he said of the last seven months of the war. Russia has a lot of power and its arsenal is unlimited.”

In the village of Stavky, about 10 miles from the front line, the sound of Russian artillery shelling of recently recaptured eastern settlements was loud enough for soldiers and civilians to stop talking and listen. .

However, commanders and soldiers seem to have agreed that Ukrainian forces should continue their offensive before the Russian side regroups.

“Now they are panicking, so they only have a month to do this,” says Swat. And winter is approaching.

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