Exhausted, on the defensive and at the ‘gates of hell’ in Ukraine | ET REALITY


ZAPORIZHZHIA REGION, Ukraine — Under the cover of darkness, leaning forward under the weight of backpacks and rifles, a squad of soldiers walked down a muddy path and crept toward a village house.

They were Ukrainian infantrymen from the 117th Separate Mechanized Brigade, gathering for a final briefing and roll call several kilometers from the Russian positions before heading to the trenches on the front line. Impassive men in hard hats and rubber boots listened silently as an intelligence officer briefed them on a new route to their positions.

“Morale is good,” said the battalion’s deputy commander, who uses the call sign Shira, and stood nearby to see off the men. “But physically we are exhausted.”

Ukrainian troops along most of the 600-mile front line are officially in defensive mode. Only in the southern region of Kherson are they still on the offensive in a tough assault across the Dnieper River.

But the fighting has not stopped and Russian forces are now on the offensive.

The capture of the town of Robotyne in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region was the furthest Ukrainian troops managed to advance in their summer counteroffensive. There was no progress. Now, in the trenches around Robotyne, Russian units attack daily. Ukrainian troops try to counterattack immediately if they lose ground, commanders said.

“It’s kind of like a game of ping-pong,” said a Ukrainian National Guard platoon commander who uses the call sign Planshet, which means “tablet.” “There’s always a 100- to 200-meter portion of land that’s being taken and retaken,” he said.

In fact, Ukrainian soldiers and commanders interviewed in recent weeks along a wide swath of the central and eastern front said Russian attacks were so intense that operating near the front line has never been more dangerous.

In recent days, Russia has focused on bombing Ukraine’s large cities to wear down civilians; For weeks, its ground forces have been mounting attacks to recapture territory lost last summer and seize prized Ukrainian strongholds along the eastern front.

Well accustomed to Russian artillery fire, soldiers said that since March they had suffered the additional devastating power of glide bombs, half-ton explosives dropped from aircraft that destroy underground bunkers.

“They were sent in two at a time, eight in an hour,” said a 27-year-old soldier known as Kit, from the Chervona Kalyna National Guard’s 14th Brigade. Like other interviewees, Kit identified herself by his call sign, according to military protocol. “It sounds like a plane coming at you,” he said, “like the gates of hell.”

The destruction caused by the gliding bombs is visible in the cities and towns near the front line. The city of Orikhiv, about 20 kilometers north of Robotyne, once served as a command center for the counteroffensive. Now it is an empty shell, the main street deserted, the school and other buildings split into pieces by huge bomb craters.

A lone worker, Valera, was riding a bicycle around the city. He said he had stayed despite the intense bombardment because he had a paid job, fixing generators. He lived off humanitarian aid and fed 20 stray cats at his house, he said.

The soldiers moved cautiously in the area, mostly living in basements and remaining undercover, out of sight.

This is because the latest threat is Russia’s use of kamikaze FPV drones, which has largely forced Ukrainian soldiers to abandon vehicles in frontline areas and operate on foot.

A cheap commercial drone, the FPV (for first-person viewing) has become the latest weapon of the moment in the Ukrainian war. It can fly as fast as a car, carries a lethal payload of explosives, and is guided to its target by a soldier sitting in a bunker several kilometers away.

Both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries are using them to hunt and attack targets because they eliminate the delay of transmitting coordinates and calling for artillery strikes. Ukrainian soldiers said they often used drones instead of artillery because projectiles were becoming scarcer and drones are a cheap and fast weapon to attack nearby Russian vehicles, bunkers and infantry.

Military units from both sides post online videos of their successful attacks, which end with a coded black screen at the moment of detonation. Several Ukrainian drone units allowed New York Times journalists to observe the operations live from positions close to the front line while tracking Russian soldiers attacked selected targets.

One unit showed videos of an attack that destroyed Russian surveillance cameras and an antenna on an office building. Another targeted a Russian bunker in a tree line, although the drone was diverted by Russian electronic jamming before impact.

Only one in several drones reaches its target and many are lost due to jamming and other interference, soldiers said.

For those receiving FPV drones, defending and supplying the front lines has become increasingly risky.

“It is extremely dangerous to go by car,” said a member of the Ukrainian National Guard, who uses the call sign Varvar. Men in his unit said that since September they had left their armored vehicles and walked six miles to their positions. “You can only enter on foot,” Varvar said.

The men of Brigade 117, who were deploying to the front line in the Zaporizhzhia region one recent night, they faced a four-mile walk through rain and mud, the intelligence commander said. If they were wounded and captured, Russian troops would execute them, he warned them.

The long, arduous work of transporting ammunition and food to supply troops and remove the wounded was one of the reasons Ukraine was unable to sustain its counteroffensive, said company commander Adolf, 23.

Ambulances and supply vehicles were attacked so frequently by kamikaze drones that his unit stopped using them and resorted to a four-wheeled stroller that volunteer engineers rigged to carry a stretcher. The buggy was hidden under some trees next to his command post, several kilometers from the front line.

Ukrainian units are giving the same treatment to FPV drones on Russian lines and say they were the first to start using drones to attack targets. But the Russians have copied the tactic and flooded front-line areas with drones in recent weeks, with deadly effect, Ukrainian soldiers and commanders said.

“My impression is that Russia is interested in drones at the state level,” said the soldier known as Kit, but in contrast, Ukraine still relied heavily on volunteers and civilian donors for its drone program. “My feeling,” he said, “is that the government should do more.”

The Russians were also employing subterfuge, Planshet said, playing tapes of gunfire on drones to make Ukrainian soldiers think they were under attack, abandon bunkers and reveal their positions.

Some members of his platoon said the Russians used drones to drop smoke grenades into their trenches. One soldier, who uses the call sign Medic, said it looked like some kind of tear gas.

“It causes very strong pain in your eyes and a fire, like a piece of coal, in your throat and you can’t breathe,” he said.

Several soldiers put on gas masks to treat the stricken men, but when two men from the platoon crawled out of the bunker to escape the gas, they were killed by grenades launched from Russian drones flying overhead, the soldiers said.

The toll is high for all units along the front. Almost everyone has been injured or barely survived an escape. in recent months, the soldiers said.

“We are missing people,” said an intelligence commander from the 117th Brigade who uses the call sign Banderas, in honor of the actor. “We have weapons but not enough men.”

However, many remain optimistic. Further east, in the Donetsk region, Maj. Serhii Betz, battalion commander of the 72nd Separate Mechanized Brigade, set out before dawn on a recent day, driving along muddy, icy roads to check on his drone units near the front line. He invited journalists from the New York Times.

The teams work underground, in bunkers lined with tree trunks and covered with earth. On a computer monitor, the commander turned on a live drone feed from a neighboring brigade where a battle was taking place.

“Russian tanks enter the village,” a commander said over a walkie-talkie. “Is everything ready?” the major asked the drone team. “A tank is a great target to destroy; Let’s help our brothers.”

Mice scampered around their bunker, rustling in a garbage bag, while the newly deployed team, fresh from training, fiddled with wiring and switches to get an FPV to fly over the Russian positions for their first attack.

They were too slow and their first two flights crashed, brought down by Russian electronic jamming.

But the oldest was satisfied. “We are developing,” he said.

Olha Konovalova contributed reporting from the Zaporizhzhia region and Christiaan Triebert from Auriac-du-Périgord, France.

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