KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — The explosions flashed bright red against the dimming landscape. Half a dozen mortar strikes in quick succession raised cones of lethal shrapnel and dirt. Black smoke curled above the trees.
There were few vehicles on the muddy road leading to the front line, and the commander of a Ukrainian reconnaissance group ordered his car to turn around. Ukrainian soldiers hugged the tree line for cover beside an artillery gun.
The front line here, about 60 miles northeast of the city of Kherson, is a dangerous zone where fields, woods and houses have been blasted by artillery fire, and soldiers hunker down in scattered villages looking for a way to push forward.
Ukraine has made dramatic gains with its recent counteroffensive in the south, thanks in part to a much strengthened artillery, but also to small specialized groups such as this reconnaissance team penetrating enemy lines. Russian troops, however, have bolstered their defenses with reinforcements and Ukrainian troops still face a formidable task in breaking Russia’s hold on this region, the reconnaissance commander said.
“They have many more than us, for every one of us they have 30,” he said. “They brought many into the Kherson region, very many, but despite everything, we are managing.”
The commander, who uses the code name Chechen, and a tightknit group of men from the 129th Brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces have been helping spearhead the Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russian troops in Kherson.
Their special anti-sniper reconnaissance unit was brought in to help Ukrainian troops who had recaptured a group of villages in September but were struggling to advance under withering Russian artillery fire.
A former bodyguard, Chechen is Ukrainian, his code name a reference to Caucasian ancestry on his mother’s side. Among his unit were a group of former soldiers from Georgia, some of whom had served in the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan. They now live and work in Ukraine and joined the territorial defense when war came to the region.
Chechen visited Ukrainian troops on the front line in a village and said they were taking heavy casualties, and the artillery fire was preventing ambulances from getting in to retrieve the wounded.
“Every day we were burying our guys,” Chechen said.
A Russian mortar team was hitting the village from 400 yards away.
“There was not a single house left. In the village we were hiding in cellars,” he said. “Several times we survived a direct hit. I can tell you it was hell on earth.”
For weeks there had been talk of a Ukrainian counterattack in the Kherson region, but an advance from the north in September had ground to a halt. The Ukrainians came under crushing fire in settlements they had recaptured as Russian troops poured artillery and airstrikes down on the positions they had just abandoned.
In late September, Chechen was asked to scout out and disable enemy units — snipers, artillery spotters and drone pilots — who were guiding in the fire on Ukrainian positions.
“We started working, gradually started seeing their people, started taking them out one by one with mortars, with snipers,” Chechen said. “First we finished one wing, then the second.”
The breakthrough came in early October when Chechen’s team crawled close enough to direct artillery fire of its own on Russian positions that were dug in along a tree line facing the village.
“They realized we could see their positions,” he said. “As we started shelling, they realized, and they gave the order to retreat. They started running away. Only then did we improve the situation in our favor.”
“Within two, three days we turned around the course of events,” he said. “We found their weak spot. We found where we could unscrew the nut. It is the task of reconnaissance to find the weak spot.”
They had some luck too, “military luck,” as he called it.
Returning to the site of the battle, Chechen surveyed the smashed Russian trenches and abandoned belongings amid splintered trees and a destroyed tank.
“This tank was driving out, firing from behind that tree line,” he said.
Further along, he pointed out another battle site.
“You can see every 10 meters they had firing positions in the tree line,” he said. “They had such a thick defense, I cannot describe it. Every foxhole was firing; every bush was firing.”
“The breaking point was we waited them out under fire,” he said. “The Russians thought that we would never be able in their lives to pass through this way. They said it was unbreakable. But God decided differently.”
Several of his men — Ukrainian volunteers from the regional town of Kryvyi Rih, who joined the Territorial Defense Forces when Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February — said he led them in prayer before every operation, adding, only half-jokingly, that he had a direct line to God that had kept them safe.
Once Russian troops started retreating, the unit followed in pursuit.
“Their tanks escaped this way and till now we are chasing them,” Chechen said.
The Russians had mined the tree lines and approaches to their positions so heavily that he chose to pursue them along the road rather than under cover of the trees. On foot, in the early morning fog, his unit walked along the road south.
“This road was all covered in clay; we had clay sticking to our boots,” he said. “Now it is already cleared by cars driving through.”
Mines were also laid on the road but they were able to navigate them.
“There were so many mines and we did not have de-miners,” he said.
Over two days they pushed south through a series of villages, finding death and destruction at every step.
“I was a bodyguard, I’ve seen a lot, but I have never seen such a thing. Cows dead. A goat ran after us like a dog and was hiding with us,” he said. “People are lying, cows are lying, geese, dogs are lying dead. And we are crawling. There is a cow’s carcass, but you keep crawling.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
His men showed videos taken on their cellphones that confirmed many of the details of his account: the unit advancing along a fogbound road, a goat running among them, a soldier greeting his cousin in a liberated village.
They also had video of one of their soldiers wounded in a mine explosion being evacuated. The mine was a booby trap, they said, attached to a Makarov pistol left lying in an abandoned Russian position.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
In describing the fighting in Kherson to The New York Times, Chechen clearly wanted recognition for his unit’s achievements, describing how the main army units often dismissed the territorial defense as the lowest in the military hierarchy, but then often sent them first into battle.
But he was also full of praise for the Ukrainian soldiers on the front line.
“The real heroes are the guys who were holding and managed to survive,” he said. “We understand when we go forward that there is little chance we will return. But when you are sitting in a trench, you don’t know when it is going to end. He does not know how long he has to stay there — that is frightening.”
(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)
Some of the Russian units were worthy opponents, displaying good tactics, he said.
“The paratroopers fight honestly. They fight well,” he said. T
he Ukrainians were more freewheeling, he said.
“We are more crazy, we improvise more, and they do not have that — they fight by the standards, and we trick them all the time,” he said.
Drinking tea around a kitchen table in a village near the front line one evening last week, Chechen talked through the next operation with his top officers. He went over and over the drill for walking through a mined area and how to react when under attack.
The Russians could see everything, which was why they had shelled the road earlier, he told them, pulling down the mood.
“It’s going to be very dangerous,” he said. “Very.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.