Will Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Change the Fate of the War with Russia?

  • Quentin Sommerville
  • BBC News, Donbas, Ukraine

5 hours ago

Ukrainian troops are trying to regain ground from Russian forces before winter sets in.

A counter-offensive is already underway in the south, and the Ukrainians are now preparing to expand it to the east, in order to regain lost territories in Donbas and around Kharkiv in the north.

Journalist Quentin Sommerville and cameraman Darren Conway were given exclusive access to a unit of Ukrainian troops.

The air is thick with the smell of burnt sunflowers, and the sound of Russian cluster bombs can be heard hitting the fields, setting fire to crops awaiting a harvest that is unlikely to come.

Heavy artillery crashes through the fields, ripping through the prosperous land of the Donbas. The National Guard protects this territory in eastern Ukraine — a region that Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed as central to his war goals. The area will be taken “step by step”, he said. But for now, it looks like the Russian advance is creeping in.

Amid the smoke and dust, something else hangs in the air—expectation. Here in Donbas, and further north on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, the country’s forces are prepared for a counteroffensive.

I recently left military positions in the south, around Kherson. It is the only city that Russian forces have captured west of the strategically important Dnipro River.

Those same troops are now engaged in battle, supporting forces that attacked Russian fronts in at least three places, as part of a long-planned counteroffensive in the south.

Ukrainian commandos impose strict restrictions on reporting in the report while the operation is in progress.

photo caption,

Ukrainian national guard men

Here in Donbas, they keep their mouths shut. I am not informed of the destination in advance, and a unit press officer asks me not to name the regiment. It removes identification from the men we filmed.

Amid the noise of artillery fire at a base under tree cover, Artyom, 35, says we are north of the city of Siversk, about five miles from the Russian front line.

“How far can you get to them?” I ask.

“Thirty meters,” he replies, “would you like to see it?”

These are all defensive positions, but the success around Kherson leads many to think more offensives are planned here and further north.

I am sent to a red-haired soldier who goes by the name of Svarog. He is 26 years old and has a baby face with a beard.

“I would look 18 without it,” he says with a smile. But after six months of combat, he is war-hardened.

His unit’s most difficult engagements took place in July in the vicinity of Lyschansk and Sivierodonetsk, where they were greatly outnumbered.

The fight here is different.

“They’re not arriving in large numbers,” says Svarog.

“They no longer advance in battalion groups — they advance in a platoon, a detachment.”

A unit commander had explained that in the field they have one man for every three of the enemy. In Sivierodonetsk, it was one for seven.

Map shows Russian advance into eastern Ukraine

I am taken on foot to the most advanced position. The bombardment is constant, but from a distance. Instead, there is a more immediate threat — landmines. I count five as we walk down a muddy path to the river.

On the bank of the river, we enter a network of trenches, and they tell me to whisper. It’s just an observation post, but it’s full of weaponry.

“Where are the Russians?” I ask a guard.

He points to the opposite bank of the river, about 30 meters away.

Nearby are craters and a shell from a used Russian rocket. This, first and foremost, is an observation post, not a combat position, I was told.

“But if there is any threat that they are crossing into our riverbank, we will open fire,” says the guard.

In a nearby village that looks so much like this artillery-destroyed part of Ukraine, largely abandoned by its residents, I meet 65-year-old Sergiy and his dog Mukha.

I ask the obvious question—why doesn’t he go away?

“My parents lived and died in this house,” he replies.

“I can’t go anywhere. I sent my wife away, and I live here alone. It’s okay, I have food and a small farm. The dog isn’t hungry.”

Sergiy says he is proud to be Ukrainian. He is not a “nationalist” but says he believes in Ukraine and the Armed Forces.

Sergiy and his dog Mukha
photo caption,

Sergiy and his dog Mukha

But others are more divided. Svarog’s unit says there is one marked difference from when they fought around Kiev: the ambivalent loyalty of some people they encountered.

I walk with his men along another ruined road in the village. They’re armed, of course—and we’re all wearing bulletproof vests and helmets.

A flock of geese is almost enough to drown out the artillery duel going on above our heads. We are invited to enter a garden full of vines and roses, where a family goes about their lives as if the war is not happening around them.

Julia, a 35-year-old teacher, laughs when I ask her about living under this threat.

“Imagine the war got to you, and you had to pack up and leave the house within 24 hours,” she says.

“You, like me, would try to hold on to what you’ve spent your whole life doing.”

Your sister Lilia is nearby. It’s your 19th birthday on the day of my visit. She has a tattoo on her wrist that reads “dulcius ex asperis” — Latin term that can be translated as “sweetness follows difficulty”.

Their father scolds the Ukrainian government for not negotiating.

“They need to sit down at the negotiating table and come to an agreement. It’s not right to go on like this,” he says.

Julia disagrees. She says calmly, “We understand, and we believe reason will prevail. Let’s wait a month, or two, for the front lines to even out, and things will be good again here.”

Julia and the daughter
photo caption,

Julia and the daughter

A few days later, I travel south and meet Ruslan, the chief combat medic who, despite seeing the daily human catastrophe of this war, still brims with good humor.

When we’ve arranged to meet him in a village not far from the front, I ask how I’m going to locate him.

“Look for the cute ambulance, it won’t go unnoticed,” he says.

No doubt the vehicle arrived at the village bus stop covered in a homemade camouflage netting, like a porcupine float.

We followed him at high speed to a front-line “stabilization point”, where wounded soldiers receive immediate vital care.

The idiosyncrasies of combat medics are legendary. So it shouldn’t be surprising that when we arrive, Yuri, the surgeon on Ruslan’s team, is wearing nothing but camouflage shorts. He has a metal detector in his hand.

“He’s looking for gold,” jokes Ruslan.

After a while, Yuri’s headphones beep and with a small army trowel, he takes a black piece of ore out of the ground.

“It’s just a hobby,” he says shyly.

The clinic is full of supplies.

“We want to thank our foreign donors,” says Ruslan.

“We haven’t unpacked yet. Often we never have time to unpack everything.”

He shows me a handwritten notebook of all the wounded they’ve treated in the past month. Arrival time, name, type of injury.

“The more text on the page, the more difficult the case,” says Ruslan.

About 9,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died since the start of the war, according to Armed Forces commander General Valerii Zaluzhnyi.

The dead and wounded of each unit are a closely guarded secret. In Ruslan’s thick notebook, there were fewer deaths than I had imagined.

“We’ve come a long way since 2014,” he says, referring to the rapid modernization of Ukrainian forces, including combat medics.

A wounded Ukrainian soldier is taken in for treatment
photo caption,

A wounded Ukrainian soldier is taken in for treatment

Ukrainian artillery is in action all around us. A powerful M777 howitzer is firing nearby, and at night we hear a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) firing its long-range ammunition.

These new weapons helped prepare the ground for the offensive in the south, and are expected to do the same in the east.

Help

I sit with Vlad, a skinny 26-year-old who is now the unit’s ambulance driver. He was a ship’s engineer until the beginning of the war. His frigate, the Hetman Sahaidachny, was sunk to prevent it from falling into Russian hands.

Before taking the wheel of the ambulance, he was an artillery man — and he is able to identify each type of explosion, as well as the year and make of the tanks and armored vehicles that pass through the clinic.

I ask him how much he likes the new role compared to artillery.

“There’s a lot of waiting now,” he says.

But he doesn’t have to wait long. A truck suddenly arrives at the clinic, with screams coming from the back door. The clinic operates without radio transmission, so they usually only hear about victims when they arrive at their door.

The first man manages to walk in, but his right arm is dangling, there is a deep wound in his shoulder. The force of the blast detonated near him broke his arm.

A second man groans and screams as he is carried by Vlad and another doctor on a stretcher to the clinic. He’s covered in shrapnel wounds.

For the next 15 minutes, the emergency room is a scene of calm but determined activity.

Yuri attends to the most seriously injured man on the stretcher, aided by the nursing staff. Lieutenant Viktor tends to the man with the wound in his arm. Patients are quickly swathed and covered with a silver thermal blanket—then sent for further treatment.

Yuri explains the next step.

“We have up to an hour to provide medical care quickly before the patient goes to the hospital, where a traumatologist, surgeon and trauma brigade will take care of him.”

Tattoo with Latin inscription that says
photo caption,

Tattoo of Liliia, who lives in a Ukrainian village, with a Latin inscription that says “sweetness follows hardship”

Both will recover, but the most seriously injured soldier is unlikely to return to service. Ruslan sits down and adds two more names to his notebook. These records are short.

There would be four more injured later that day, but in the meantime, Ruslan takes us to the trenches where victims receive first aid.

Mortars start hitting the tree line, beyond where we are.

“It’s a good thing they missed the mark,” he laughs, now wearing full combat gear. “That’s Russian precision for you.”

I ask him how they manage to rescue victims while they are under constant bombardment.

“No one is going to put the team at risk. So, as difficult as it may seem, you can’t lose strength and resources, human resources, vehicles.”

“When there is a lull, or when the battle stops or the enemy is out of ammunition, that’s when the rescue happens immediately”, he explains.

“Until then, they try to save [as vítimas] on site with all the resources they have. We’ve already lost too many combat medics.”

As we leave the front, the sky darkens, and lightning flashes on the horizon. Bad weather is on its way, summer is ending, and fighting conditions are going to get worse. The thick snow of winter will arrive threatening to freeze the battlefronts.

But for now, there’s something else in the air here — an expectation that, after months of stalemate, Ukraine could be on the verge of striking back again.

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The article is in Portuguese

Tags: Ukraines Counteroffensive Change Fate War Russia

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