As the counteroffensive slowly advances, those doing the fighting call for more arms from the west
by Luke Harding in Velyka Novosilka
7 Jul 2023
From a distance of about 3 miles (5km) the drone camera zoomed in on a group of Russian soldiers. Three of them got out of a vehicle, strolled over to a cottage, and disappeared inside. “We won’t hit them yet. It’s better to observe,” the drone’s Ukrainian operator – call-sign “Garry” – said. “Once we’ve destroyed them, we’ll move on to the next target.”
The screen in front of him offered a panoramic view of the war in southern Ukraine. There were green fields, pitted with holes from artillery strikes. A destroyed armoured vehicle sat on a road. The frontline village of Urozhaine, where the Russians had parked up, was a mazy ruin. A puff of grey smoke from a Ukrainian missile rose into an azure sky.
Since Ukraine’s counteroffensive began a month ago, Garry’s air reconnaissance unit has been spotting enemy targets. It is slow, painstaking work. The Russians deploy electronic countermeasures. The drone goes “deaf”, Garry said, which means it has to be flown manually back to its starting point, a yellow field next to ash trees and a colony of buntings.
Kyiv has managed to liberate four abandoned villages, south of the small town of Velyka Novosilka, on the border of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia provinces. The advance has been modest so far: about 3 miles. The objective on this sector of the front is to recapture the Russian-occupied port of Berdiansk, and to reach the Sea of Azov. It is unclear when, or even if, this might happen.
On Friday, the fighting continued. Ukraine’s defence forces reached the northern outskirts of Staromayorske, advancing towards Kerminchyk and the grey zone village of Novodonetske. Dug in against them is Russia’s 5th combined army. It is normally based in the far-east Pacific region, more than 4,000 miles away, and has been sent to “defend” what Moscow says is Russian territory.
This week, Volodymyr Zelenskiy hit out against critics who say his counteroffensive has been slow and underwhelming. The Ukrainian president pointed out that his country’s battlefield success was directly dependent on western supplies of heavy weapons. F-16 fighter jets, which could clear a path for Ukrainian infantry, are unlikely to arrive before autumn, too late for this season’s military push. “The Russians have a lot of stuff. That’s the problem,” Garry said, sitting on a green camping chair, set up in front of a console, and hidden in a shady copse. Both sides conceal their vehicles under tree cover. Sometimes, a shadow was visible in late afternoon and gave away a location, he said. His Ukrainian-made drone flew at a 1km altitude and was equipped with a night-time thermal camera that detected large objects, he explained.
In February, Garry’s newly formed brigade, the 37th separate marines, trained in southern England. “We were close to Stonehenge. My friend took a photo,” he said. “We learned how to
storm enemy trenches, to dig in under fire and to carry out an ambush. They were good instructors. Some were Irish and Australian. At the end they gave us a Thermos flask each decorated with an Australian flag.”
The Ukrainian soldiers said they were grateful for the support from western nations but emphasised that more was needed to defeat the Russians. In a different field planted with sunflowers, a senior lieutenant known as “Cuba” chatted with a four-man crew. They sat on an AMX wheeled light tank, recently donated by France. British Husky infantry vehicles nestled under nearby foliage. “The Russian army has an advantage in the number of people, tanks and artillery,” Cuba said. “The gap is not as wide as it was a year ago. But still there is a gap. We are moving forward, step by step. It isn’t an easy task.” He added: “We want more heavy equipment, to make a successful offensive operation. We need an advantage in heavy tanks – not just light ones – and artillery.”
The Russians had had a long time to prepare their defences, Cuba said. They have built the most extensive fortifications seen anywhere for decades, which included three layers of trenches, 30km deep, he said and had laid a lot of mines. When his brigade stormed an enemy position last month, they found multiple underground chambers reinforced with concrete.
Cuba expressed frustration at some foreign politicians. “My perception is support from the west is too little, too late. You have to analyse the situation, with too many stakeholders. You react to yesterday’s realities and not today’s.” What would he say to those who thought the counteroffensive was a flop? “Come here and help,” he said. “We need Russia’s complete defeat so this doesn’t repeat in 10-15 years.”
In the meantime, life goes on in Velyka Novosilka, under the shadow of Europe’s biggest war since 1945. There are constant booms and rumbles, mostly from outgoing Ukrainian fire. Incoming projectiles have smashed up five-storey blocks of flats, blowing out windows. Ukrainian military vehicles screech up and down a dusty central avenue, wary of enemy drones.
The town was once home to 6,500 people. It had primary and secondary schools, restaurants, a hospital and farms. A handful of residents now remain. They have no electricity, gas, or water. Tall grass has engulfed a children’s playground, blotting out the swings. A Soviet-era factory with a brick chimney, constructed in 1969, stands empty and forlorn. There are more swifts and white butterflies than humans. “Almost everyone has gone,” 72-year-old Nadezhda Ivanova said, sitting on a bench outside her shrapnel-damaged block of flats. Why had she not left? “Where would I go? My husband, Anatoliy, is 78. Our pensions are very small,” she replied. She added: “At first the war was terrible. But now we have got used to it. Not that you really get used to explosions.”
Ivanova showed off the cellar with she and her husband slept at nights. It was a dark and windowless concrete cell with twin beds. Five other residents from her block lived in another part of the basement. “The first winter it was very cold. Now we have a stove,” she said. During the day she and Anatoliy went back to their first-floor home. Volunteers delivered food twice a week.
During the afternoons, Nadezhda said she enjoyed sitting outside. She read from an illustrated book: 100 Great Mysteries of History. “I’ve been learning about Abraham Lincoln,” she said. She said her father had fought with the Red Army in the second world war, only returning in
1948 from the battle with Japan. “He was a strong man,” she said. “I am not a fan of war. I hope it finishes soon.”
Despite the slow progress, Ukrainian soldiers remain upbeat and confident they will eventually defeat the Russians. A 57-year-old volunteer nicknamed Filin said he and other members of his brigade knew why they were fighting, unlike their mobilised opponents. Ukraine cared about its soldiers and avoided the meat-grinder tactics used by Moscow, which had caused high numbers of Russian casualties. “Of course we will win,” Filin said. “We have a national idea. We are on our land. We believe in ourselves.”
Luke Harding is a British journalist who is a foreign correspondent for The Guardian. He was based in Russia for The Guardian from 2007 until, returning from a stay in the UK on 5 February 2011, he was refused re-entry to Russia and deported the same day. His 2011 book Mafia State discusses his experience in Russia and the political system under Vladimir Putin, which he describes as a mafia state. In 2020, Luke Harding published the book Shadow State, covering Russian covert operations, from the poisoning of Sergei Skripal by the GRU, to digital influence operations. In 2022, Luke Harding published the book Invasion.