September 19, 2023
By Aleksander Palikot
NEAR VELYKA NOVOSILKA, Ukraine — “We planned the offensive, went in, crushed two Russian brigades, and battered them until they pulled in all the reserves,” Anatoliy, a battalion commander from the 37th Marine Infantry Brigade, said of a breakthrough on the front south of Velyka Novosilka, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, in early June.
The advance 10 kilometers deep into what had been Russian defenses along the Mokri Yaly River and the liberation of seven settlements along the way was so far one of the most spectacular episodes during Ukraine’s counteroffensive. The NATO-trained, Western-equipped brigades that took part in it — 35th, 36th, 37th, and 38th — are among the country’s most potent offensive forces.
During the assault, Anatoliy’s battalion used fast Western transporters such as French AMX-10 RC armored fighting vehicles and mine-resistant American Oshkosh M-ATVs. They shot on the move to stun Russian forces until marines on foot could be deployed, he said. Guided by drones observing the battlefield the marines stormed the enemy trenches and engaged in a risky close combat.
“You go toward the enemy line with mines under your feet and fire coming from three directions — it’s not a nice feeling,” Anatoliy told RFE/RL, his hands resting on a Kalashnikov rifle he took as a trophy as he recalled the battle.
His last name, and those of the other soldiers cited in this story, have been withheld in conformance with Ukrainian military rules.
After spending several years at war and all his adult life in the army, the 34-year-old commander said he had lost “youthful romanticism” and gotten used to “the mundane business of killing the enemy.”
“If someone is waiting to see something like a Budyonny-style cavalry charge or a Soviet-type tank battle, they’d better go to a cinema,” he said.
At The Headquarters And In The Trenches
As he spoke, Anatoliy entered the unit’s headquarters, dug deep in the black soil of the Donbas steppe. The orderly, spacious, chilly dugout hosts a small group of people who determine the actions of Ukrainian soldiers on this section of the front line.
On a recent visit, dozens of monitors displayed battlefield maps scaled to the level showing every tree, bush, and field border, with Ukrainian troops marked in green and Russian troops in
red. The wood-clad walls were covered with printouts of drone-shot aerial photos and data charts. Soldiers sitting by their laptops took notes in rarely interrupted silence.
“All of the fighting is happening in real-time,” Anatoliy said, putting his finger on a small red square marking a Russian position on the map. “I will eliminate them tomorrow.”
The closest green point on the map is a Ukrainian position located 194 meters away from the Russians. The trench, retaken earlier and freshly deepened, was occupied by a handful of soldiers including Yuriy, 23, Viktor, 36, and Serhiy, 42, all recently called up and trained.
There wasn’t a single day without shelling from artillery, mortars, and rocket launchers, Serhiy, who had been at the position for more than three weeks, told RFE/RL. He hung his T-shirt on a branch a day before to dry in the sun — and now it’s as holey as Swiss cheese.
According to Viktor, who operates an anti-drone rifle, an enemy drone flies overhead every half-hour, spotting targets for artillery or trying to drop an explosive. Sometimes, the men are forced to listen to the Russian national anthem played by the soldiers on the other side of the front line. They laugh about it and crack their own jokes, despite fatigue and nervous agitation.
Viktor smokes up to two packs of cigarettes per day. Serhiy thinks the war will last for an “indefinite period.” Yuriy believes it will “soon end with our victory.”
For now, they put wooden doors in their dugout and installed a wood stove there. “We’re quietly settling in, Mr. Commander,” Serhiy told Anatoliy during his visit to the position. “I promise you’ll get the leave when I find a replacement for you,” his superior replied.
Steadily Pushing Forward
This may take some time: The Ukrainian counteroffensive, already in its fourth month and moving ahead slowly, is not expected to end soon — whatever its result. The strategic drive toward the Sea of Azov, aimed at severing the “land-bridge” — the swath of occupied territory stretching from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula — seems to be far on the horizon.
So far, Ukrainian forces deployed on the southern front — more dynamic than the eastern front — have struggled to break through the formidable Russian defenses known as Surovikin Lines, after the Russian general who developed them last winter and spring and was dismissed as commander of operation in Ukraine after Wagner mercenary group’s mutiny in late June.
Anatoliy told RFE/RL that the Russians have learned from the mistakes that helped enable Ukraine to take back substantial amounts of occupied territory in the months after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022. Now, he said, they have built solid and smart defenses, and copied some of the Ukrainian tactics.
“There is a lot of subtlety in how both sides conduct this war, and ultimately the winner is the wiliest,” he said.
Since June, Ukrainian forces have made considerable progress at two points: near Velyka Novosilka, a Donetsk region town close to the administrative border with the Zaporizhzhya region, and near recently liberated Robotyne in the western part of the Zaporizhzhya region.
In both cases, the progress from village to village has come in fast-moving skirmishes carried out from one tree line to another. In between those lie wide, densely mined fields that expose any moving object to enemy fire in addition to the risk of a deadly blast underfoot.
As a result, assault operations are preceded by demining work, often carried out at night, and by prolonged phases of artillery shelling and missile strikes aimed to clear the way for closer engagement.
This strategy, adopted after initial attempts to quickly break through the defense lines with mechanized and armored forces, has helped limit losses of men and equipment. But it means progress is also limited: Taking a kilometer of territory can take a week of fighting.
According to Anatoliy, the marine infantry brigades are sufficiently staffed and equipped for the tasks assigned by their commanders and will press ahead with the offensive operations in the future.
“We will push forward until I light a cigarette lying in a hammock on the shore of the Sea of Azov,” he said.
The 37th Marine Infantry Brigade consists almost solely of conscripts who underwent training not only in Ukraine but also in at least one of several NATO nations: Poland, Norway, Britain, France, and Spain. The unit commanders are in touch with colleagues from NATO, and the brigade uses Western-supplied armored equipment, light tanks, artillery, and other weapons.
Ukraine formed separate marine infantry brigades in May on the orders of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “They are a powerful force that destroys the enemy, liberates Ukrainian lands, and performs the most difficult tasks in the most difficult conditions, and we need more of this force,” he said at the time.
‘The Fighting Will Continue’
Exactly what lies ahead for these elite units in unclear, but it almost certainly involves more fighting, at least for several weeks.
U.S. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the BBC on September 10 that there was “probably about 30 to 45 days’ worth of fighting weather left, so the Ukrainians aren’t done. And then the rains will come in; it will become very muddy, and it will be very difficult to maneuver at that point and then you will get the deep winter.”
But Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, said that Ukrainian forces would adjust to the weather and that “the fighting will continue one way or another.”
According to Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskiy, who commands Ukraine’s Tavria grouping, which operates in the south, the offensive near Velyka Novosilka, which could potentially lead to a move towards the occupied port city of Mariupol, was just a distraction. Military experts say that battles in the vicinity of Tokmak, in the Zaporizhzhya region further west, will play a decisive role soon, as Ukrainian advances there would open the way to Melitopol, another occupied southern city that is crucial to the “land-bridge.”
Advances in both areas bring Ukrainian artillery closer to Russian supply lines giving them opportunity to disrupt the enemy’s logistics.
“I don’t know what will happen in a month or two, and I don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” Anatoliy told RFE/RL and added after a pause: “To be precise, I know what will happen tomorrow, but I won’t tell you.”
A week later, publicly available sources showed the long-red position located 194 meters from the trench manned by Yuriy, Viktor, and Serhiy, was marked in green — held by Ukraine, that is, and no longer Russia.
Aleksander Palikot is a Ukraine-based journalist covering politics, history, and culture. His work has appeared in Krytyka Polityczna, New Eastern Europe, Jüdische Allgemeine, and beyond.