Carlotta Gal/The New York Times
30.07.2023 • 17:28
For 10 days, Ukrainian marines fought street by street and house by house to retake the southeastern village of Staromayorske amid artillery fire, airstrikes and hundreds of Russian troops.
The Russians put up a fierce defence, but until Thursday they pulled back and the Ukrainians claimed victory. “Some ran away, some stayed behind,” said a commander from Ukraine’s 35th Marine Brigade who goes by the callsign Dikyi, which means “Wild”. “We were taking prisoners,” he added.
The counteroffensive was largely a brutal lesson for Ukrainian troops struggling to retake territory in the southern region of Zaporizhia.
The recapture of Staromajorske, a small village that is nevertheless crucial to Ukraine’s strategy in the South, was such a welcome development for Ukraine that President Volodymyr Zelensky himself announced it.
The counteroffensive was largely a brutal lesson for Ukrainian troops struggling to retake territory in the southern region of Zaporizhia. In two months, Ukrainian troops have advanced less than 15km at any point along the region’s 150km front.
What does the victory in Staromajorske mean?
Victories like the one in Staromajorske represent a potentially significant advance in the fighting, Ukrainian officials said, perhaps paving the way for a broader push by the country’s forces.
Ukraine is focusing on two main thrusts to the south, aimed at cutting off Russian supply routes. One line of attack runs through Staromajorske to the city of Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov, and another further west to Melitopol.
Staromajorske and Berdyansk are critical supply lines for the Russians.
Both cities are strategic transit routes for Russian forces occupying southern Ukraine and Crimea.
For weeks Ukrainian artillery and long-range missiles have pounded Russian supply lines and rear bases in an attempt to break their operational capability and undermine Russian morale.
New Russian Deadly Tactics
As Ukrainian forces deploy Western-supplied weapons, Russian troops are using deadly new tactics and weapons of their own making, including attack drones and remotely detonated mines.
In Staromajorske, Russian soldiers dug bunkers under village houses with multiple exits so that a house would erupt like an anthill when attacked, said Dikyi, the Ukrainian commander.
Military vehicles of members of the Armed Forces of Ukraine liberate the town of Staromajorske, Donetsk region, July 27, 2023. (©35th Marine Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine/REUTERS)
The key to Ukraine’s success in the village, the Ukrainian military said, was wearing out the Russian soldiers’ will to fight. The first sign of the Russian collapse came when 20 soldiers left their post after complaining that reinforcements had not arrived, he said.
From intercepts of Russian communications and interrogations of prisoners, Ukrainian forces knew that their opponents were suffering casualties and that some were refusing to fight.
“They were panicking,” Dikyi said. The Ukrainians redoubled their thrust with a frontal attack by two battalions along four roads.
“Russian defenses and firepower remain strong”
But as officials celebrated Ukraine’s progress in Staromajorsk, troops on other fronts reported that Russian defenses and firepower remained formidable and in places impenetrable.
Interviews with Ukrainian soldiers and a review of military surveillance footage from a recent offensive show that many Ukrainian units are suffering heavy casualties.
The first Ukrainian soldiers to reach the Russian positions fell into a trench.
A team with special operations training deployed last month to storm Russian positions in a village in the western part of the front took such heavy losses in four days of attacks that it was forced to withdraw without achieving any success.
After the armored vehicles were largely destroyed by artillery fire on the first day, the special ops revised their plan to approach the village on foot, through a line of trees that had been mined. The Ukrainians cleared a narrow path with IEDs, and the first soldiers to reach the Russian positions fell into a trench.
“Our kids started blowing up”
Drone footage of the incident showed what happened next. The explosions were suddenly detonated inside the trenches, while other shots hit soldiers at the edge of the tree line. The video has been verified by the New York Times.
“The trenches were mined,” said the commander, who goes by the call sign Voskres, short for “Resurrection.” “Our children started throwing themselves into the trenches and blowing themselves up,” he added. Russian forces monitored and remotely detonated the mines, he said.
Russian forces monitored and remotely detonated the mines.
Those who managed to avoid the mines were attacked by multiple Russian kamikaze drones. “It seemed like they had a drone for every person,” he said. “If we knew the amount of equipment the Russians have, we would be talking about… mission impossible.”
Several weeks later, this village on the western part of the front remains in the hands of the Russians.
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