Even hotly contested front lines in the world’s current biggest war have their downtime. For southern Ukraine, that time is now.
After months of fierce battles, the line of contact between Ukrainian and Russian forces on the borders of the Mykolaiv and Kherson regions has fallen nearly silent.
Both sides find themselves biding their time, albeit for opposite reasons: Kyiv is building up its forces for a new offensive to follow the successful liberation of numerous villages in northeast Kherson in early October, while Moscow is digging in with recently mobilised troops.
During a recent visit by bne IntelliNews to forward positions near the town of Snihurivka, the key Russian defensive position anchoring the northern edge of their right-bank Dnipro salient, Ukrainian soldiers from the 63rd Mechanised Brigade sat calmly drinking coffee and cleaning their weapons.
“We took this position a few weeks ago – you can see we’re still preparing the trenches,” says Bohdan, a 27-year old Ukrainian army reservist called up in April. “They’ve mostly left us alone since then,” he adds, gesturing out past the treeline towards Russian lines further south.
The soldiers’ easy demeanour reflects the confidence they are feeling. Over the last two months, momentum in the war has clearly swung towards Ukraine’s side. The collapse of Russian lines in northeastern Kharkiv oblast in early September was a shock even to the Ukrainians themselves, as they quickly seized back more than 8,000 square kilometres of territory, driving Russian troops back to the border.
Here, the fighting has been more difficult: A concurrent offensive in Kherson made only fitful gains, facing off against much of Moscow’s remaining professional troops, transferred here in the months before. The advances into northeast Kherson in early October were hard-won.
The brigade’s commanders affirm that the shelling has lessened substantially.
Ukrainian officer Nazar of the 63rd Mechanised Brigade: "We control the situation now". Photo: Neil Hauer/bne IntelliNews.
“This morning they were hitting us, but nothing like what they used to,” says Nazar, a 38-year-old officer from Lviv. “The intensity is much lower than a month and a half ago. They still fire on us – GRADs, Uragans [rocket artillery], heavy howitzers – but we control the situation now,” Nazar says.
He ducks into a low, freshly dug bunker, snatching a cigarette. Assaults on their positions have dropped off, too.
“The last significant attack we faced [on our sector of the front] was a month ago,” Nazar says. “The enemy conducted a reconnaissance in force – about a company of men came at us. We killed a bunch of them, drove the rest off. We had to bury their dead – they didn’t come back for the bodies,” he says.
The quality of troops they face has also degraded. Vladimir Putin’s mobilisation, announced just over a month ago, has already posted conscripted men on the front here.
“We’ve already seen their mobilised men [here],” Nazar says. “You can tell immediately by their level of preparation – much lower [than what we’re used to seeing].” Asked to describe that level, Nazar gives two words: “cannon fodder”.
For him, that helps to explain Russian territorial losses over the past eight weeks.
“The Russian retreats – we can’t even call it a retreat. They are simply running away, being routed, very chaotically in some situations,” Nazar says. “The amateurs – those from the so-called DNR and LNR, the mobilised men – these ones are particularly flighty,” he says.
The attitude of Russia’s military and political leadership towards their soldiers explains the massive losses they have taken, as well as their faltering morale, Nazar says. Ukraine claims that it has killed over 65,000 Russian troops, while the Pentagon estimated in August that Russia had suffered more than 80,000 casualties to date.
“In all wars that Russia [and the Soviet Union] has ever fought, it relies entirely on the number of people,” Nazar says. “[Soviet Field Marshal Georgy] Zhukov said in World War II: ‘men’s deaths are not a problem, women will give birth to more of them’. That’s their viewpoint. A human for them is just a unit, a resource,” he says.
He attempts to have the opposite relationship with his soldiers.
“I’ve worked with American commanders and advisors,” Nazar says. “They have a great phrase: ‘do as I do’. It’s their motto, and I try to follow it as well.
“Russian commanders, on the other hand, they give orders and tasks to their soldiers without knowing how they will achieve them. Then they sit back while their troops fight, not caring how many of them will die or not. In order for your soldiers to trust you, they must see that you are not somewhere far away, but there at the forward positions with them. That’s the exact opposite of how Russian officers think,” he says.
That kind of attitude by Russian leadership has led to the increasing number of surrenders on the front. Nazar confirms that the 63rd Brigade has taken more and more prisoners over recent months.
“Of course, we have quite a few [Russians] now,” he says. “Some of them were captured, but many others surrendered. Our authorities deal with them in a humane matter,” Nazar says.
Much of the talk in Ukraine these days is about the much-anticipated final assault on Kherson, to liberate the only provincial capital Russian troops have captured since February 24. Nazar says the operation is nearly ready to go ahead – and that Ukrainian forces are already capable of taking the city.
“Let’s put it this way,” Nazar says. “I would like to conquer Yalta [in occupied Crimea] tomorrow. We would all like that, but I understand that it’s not quite possible yet. We will take Kherson when we consider it right.
“Are we ready to enter Kherson now? Yes, we are ready. Can we do it? If we really want it, then yes. But we have to understand what human losses we are going to have. The most important thing is people’s lives. As a commander, I have to do everything to get all the people who came to me on the 24th of February home – to see the end of the war,” he says.
Further actions to shape the offensive are crucial to its success, with as little loss of life possible, Nazar says.
“To be able to [take Kherson city], we have to seriously take into consideration, analyse and study the situation of each operation that we carry out,” he says. “An offensive is not only an infantry attack. The offensive is a big piece of work that is being done on all levels, beginning with the general staff and ending with the smallest units. We’re doing our part, and we’re getting there,” Nazar says.
He attributes much of the success his unit, and the Ukrainian army as a whole, have experienced to the extensive reforms since 2014.
“When I began my military career in 2015, I saw all sorts of officers in the army,” Nazar says. “There were officers from the Soviet period, and there were officers who had graduated from West Point. If we look at our army now, it’s clear we are moving towards Nato standards – not only on paper, but in reality. Nato is our tomorrow. The army is a cross-section of society, and both are moving towards the West together,” he says.
As in all wars, there have been plenty of hard days, and more are ahead.
“Unfortunately, people die at war,” Nazar says. “We also have losses, and the hardest to understand is that your friend, who you would often sit and drink coffee with, has been killed. It’s the hardest part of war,” he says, his voice going soft as he fights back his emotions.
“I am proud to say that I have so many good people in my unit – truly worthy men,” Nazar says. “People did not run from the war. When we were recruiting in February, there was a literal line to join [the army]. That is why it is my responsibility to get them home safely.
“You can force a person to be scared of you, but you can’t force him to respect you. That’s why it is very important for me to earn that respect from my soldiers. We all went through very difficult situations together, and we are like a big family now, all supporting each other and defending our country,” he says.
Meanwhile, while Kherson waits, all that Nazar and the 63rd Brigade can do is take things one day at a time.
“The worst day of this war was losing my closest friend,” Nazar says. “But the best day is yet to come. When this war will finally end – with victory.”