By Alex Horton and Serhiy Morgunov

October 12, 2023

The Washington Post


DONETSK REGION, Ukraine — The Ukrainian soldier was alone on the road when he approached the hornet’s nest under his feet: a group of about 10 Russians in a drainage pipe turned into a makeshift bunker.  As a few of his comrades nearby covered him, the soldier inched forward along the road in Andriivka, a small but strategic village in eastern Ukraine. The soldier hurled an explosive charge inside the pipe and sprinted away.  The explosion killed the Russians inside, Ukrainian soldiers from the unit said, and was a key moment in the mission to rip the occupied village from Russian hands.

While big, complex maneuvers unfold in Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive, and long-range artillery duels thunder along the front lines, such small-team tactics are less visible. But these stealthy assaults of a handful of soldiers storming enemy positions have been quietly instrumental in recent gains in the eastern Donetsk region outside Bakhmut, Ukrainian fighters and commanders said. Outnumbered and outgunned, Ukrainian teams numbering four to a dozen can attack on foot far less conspicuously than with vehicles, surprising complacent enemies and triggering chaos along the front.

The strategy, soldiers said, helped Ukrainian forces retake Andriivka and another village, Klishchiivka — important steps to increase pressure on Russians resupplying forces in and around Bakhmut. This intense fighting has come with steep costs, troops and medical personnel said.

Russian forces are dug in and protected by mines, artillery and endless drone sorties. Ukrainian soldiers must push through all this, sometimes close enough to read name tags on an enemy’s body armor. In the event that soldiers are wounded or killed, that proximity means evacuation is a dangerous and long endeavor. “The enemy bites, fights back; they have a big advantage, one against five,” said an assault platoon commander with the call sign Percent. Like other soldiers, Percent is being identified by his call sign in keeping with Ukrainian military protocol. Percent’s unit, the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, participated in the liberation of Andriivka in mid-September. Some wounded have returned to the battlefield, but many others have not. “We’ve suffered big losses,” he said.

The concept of mobilizing small assault groups to knock a larger enemy off-balance is not new, but it is tailor-made for the circumstances in the Bakhmut area. Soldiers there must move fast and hard toward the enemy, dig into the earth to repel them, then move forward again in a fast, exhausting tempo. Using smaller teams, soldiers said, reduces exposure to drones, attack helicopters and artillery crews hunting for larger groups of troops.

Much of that movement is dictated by the terrain — mostly grassland steppe. The few tree lines and structures that would offer cover have been obliterated by shelling, leaving a moonscape. Sometimes enemy trenches are the only places to take cover. Other times, soldiers find safety in an artillery crater or the basement of a destroyed home. The enemy could be anywhere and even move through intricate holes and pop out for attacks. Soldiers describe it as whack-a-mole with rifles. “They see you from the sky constantly,” Percent said. “It’s been very difficult to fight in those circumstances because enemy mortars, artillery and grenades are constantly being thrown at you.”

The final push to retake Andriivka started at night, said Rollo, the commander of the brigade’s 1st Battalion. An assault battalion and armored units drove wedges into enemy territory and took heavy losses fighting over a strategic road, Rollo said. Russian resistance was fierce. Enemy radio intercepts indicated that the Russians would be shot by their own side if they retreated. Russian commanders used a mix of counterattacks, he said — sometimes small groups and other times trying to overpower the Ukrainians with far more soldiers, in what Ukrainians call “meat assaults.” Russian soldiers learn quickly, and Ukrainian commanders don’t underestimate them, Ukrainian soldiers said. Yet the tactics sometimes sent the enemy into disarray.

Russian commanders and aviation units grew confused about who was where, Rollo said, prompting an unusual tactic later described by enemy soldiers taken captive. Drone pilots dropped grenades near unidentified soldiers, then watched if they ran toward Russian or Ukrainian lines, revealing their allegiance, Rollo said. The enemy waves kept coming, Rollo said, and at one point, his soldiers were at risk of being overrun. Ukrainian troops were on one side of a road, in fighting positions, and on the other side were about 30 enemy soldiers in a field, separated by a few yards and drawing closer.

Rollo made a mind-bending decision. He called for a barrage of cluster munitions, he said, using the coordinates for his own soldiers. “We covered the entire area, but because we’d jumped into the holes we didn’t have any losses,” he said. It was a key moment in breaking Russian lines. There were numerous other acts of valor, big and small, during the two-day campaign to liberate Andriivka, including the soldier who blew up the drainpipe position. But that also reflects a problem, Percent said.

Such actions must be taken because there aren’t enough modern Western weapons, he said. If they had more of some weapons, like long-range rocket artillery, “we wouldn’t need this heroism of soldiers and such losses,” he said. “Instead, we are doing this with the enthusiasm of the military, their strength of spirit and the enormous work of the commanders, who must carefully think through every step,” Percent said. “Every fighter counts, every projectile counts, every bullet counts.” Other leaders in assault units echoed that sentiment, describing Western military assistance as one of the most crucial variables in accomplishing their objectives.

On a recent afternoon, soldiers of the 80th Separate Air Assault Brigade, which helped liberate Klishchiivka last month, lined up at a training range to hone their marksmanship. One officer pointed to a U.S.-made M16. It’s a good rifle, he explained, but they don’t have enough weapons and ammunition to press as hard as they want. The M16 is also not a modern weapon. Its long

stock and barrel make it unwieldy in trenches and vehicles. It is obsolete for most American military units and has been replaced by the M4. The outdated design of some M16s makes it impossible to attach most optics and infrared lasers.

The slow and incremental deliveries of older equipment, the officer said, feels like the West has designed a video game, in which power-ups have to be earned. “Every successful mission allows us to receive a bit more and opens new skills,” he said. “It’s difficult for us. Our citizens are dying every day.” The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a frank assessment of foreign support.

Outside Bakhmut, the inevitable consequences of these violent assault missions burst through the doors of a no-frills medical facility, where doctors and nurses work at all hours to treat the wounded. Inside, chaplains offer prayers and spiritual healing, and in many cases, a set of hands to help move people and supplies. Drivers buzz through the hallways after daring missions to extract soldiers from the front. The facility, known as a stabilization point, is meant to treat soldiers before moving them to an actual hospital. Sometimes, that means revitalizing flatlining patients.

Evacuating soldiers so close to the fight is often precarious. Russian drones lurk along roads used to transport the wounded, which often delays evacuations until after dark. Medics often carry wounded soldiers up to three miles, said Dmytro, a doctor and stabilization point supervisor for the 5th Separate Assault Brigade. Those delays in care result in more amputations, he said, because tourniquets secured too long can kill limbs.

The flow of injuries has slowed since February and March, medical personnel said, when casualties soared during the battle for Bakhmut. But the wounded still keep the place busy as the fight rages up and down the lines. A soldier with a head wound was tended by Khrystyna, a nurse who put off a PhD in sociology to join the war. She works long, arduous hours under fire. “It’s a small family. You live and connect so closely together,” she said. “You eat and sleep by each other’s side. You eat and drink from the same plates and cups. You also face situations that make you very close, very fast.”

Heidi Levine contributed to this report.

Alex Horton is a national security reporter for The Washington Post focused on the U.S. military. He served in Iraq as an Army infantryman.

Serhiy Morgunov is an independent Ukrainian filmmaker, cinematographer, documentary photographer and civil activist. He has taken part in international exhibitions, has been published in international media and books. Since June 2014, he has volunteered in the zone of Russian-Ukrainian conflict, helped civilians in villages and towns close to the demarcation line. In March 2017, he was nominated for Joop Swart Masterclass by World Press Photo.