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Ukraine: On the Kherson Front: “We need much more artillery fire for an offensive against the Russians” | International

Between the wishes of a political leader and reality there is usually a long way, but when it comes to war, the distance can be abysmal. Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, confirmed on July 23 that the campaign to recover the territories in the south of the country invaded by Russia was already underway. Zelensky was referring to the expected counteroffensive against the city of Kherson, on the Black Sea coast, which fell into Russian hands at the beginning of the invasion and represents the worst strategic defeat for Ukraine in this war. However, the military units interviewed by EL PAÍS on the front warn that this goal is far from possible without first multiplying the supply of weapons and the number of qualified soldiers.

The dust seeps through every skin pore of the men of the Ukrainian 17th Armored Brigade, on the front between the Dnipro and Kherson regions. Even when they blow their noses, the piece of paper they use turns black. Vladislav Tuzuritza, whom his comrades call The Georgian, is a gunner of a “Rapira”, a Soviet 100-millimeter anti-tank gun. By day he lies on a mattress under the trees; at night, when the invader blasts his positions with artillery, he sleeps in the trench. They live by the canyon, stocked with stacks of bottles of water, sacks of onions, sacks of potatoes, and cans of laundry detergent. They haven’t been able to get close to the Russian lines for too many weeks, he says. The normal thing is that Ukrainians and Russians are three or four kilometers apart. In this sector of the front, near the village of Kochubeivka, they are separated by 12 kilometers. They cannot even shoot for fear of being identified by Russian drones. “My main problem is the drones,” confirms Tuzuritza.

Columns of smoke from Russian artillery attacks on the war front between the Kherson and Dnipro regions.
Columns of smoke from Russian artillery attacks on the war front between the Kherson and Dnipro regions.Christian Segura

The Georgian refers to unmanned craft that make it easy for gunners to correct the position of their target. “In the last two weeks we have shot down two Russian drones at this point on the front. We used to shoot down six drones a day.” Who provides this example is Andrei Lahouvka, lieutenant of the brigade. Weak and small in stature, he contrasts with the battle-hardened and weathered demeanor of his subordinates. “Don’t get confused,” says Tuzuritza, “we spent two weeks trying to take out a Russian sniper. And do you know who found him? The lieutenant”.

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Lahouvka, like most of the soldiers interviewed, paints a grim picture: “We are running out of ammunition and the Russians know it, and now they move with greater confidence”; “we need more powerful vehicles to move our cannons, the ones we have are slow and they are an easy target”; “To launch an offensive we need much more artillery fire, more multi-missile launchers and anti-aircraft batteries, only then can the infantry advance.”

About 40 kilometers to the east, following what is called “line zero of the front”, the counteroffensive has indeed begun. “In one month we have liberated 11 villages,” says Serhii Shatalov, colonel of the 98th Infantry Tactical Battalion. This 29-year-old, with 12 military experience under his belt, has a personality that makes him a born leader and respected by his 600 soldiers. In perfect English, learned at a US military academy, Shatalov also wants to convey the message that without more weapons and more well-trained troops, the counteroffensive will remain a promise: “If they want us to advance, we need more tanks, because the The Russians have a lot more tanks, and we also need more medical supplies, because infantry casualties will be high.”

A Ukrainian T-64 tank on the Kherson front.
A Ukrainian T-64 tank on the Kherson front.Christian Segura

The 98th Tactical Battalion changes quarters periodically. “No one knows where I sleep, they have already tried to kill me twice,” says Shatalov with a smile. His command post last week was a former Soviet vacation center for employees of a local industry. The only one allowed to disobey the colonel’s orders is his dog, a French bulldog puppy that runs around the place, biting the military’s shoes and pants. Sergeant Major Serhii Taranenko, the pup climbs on top of him and bites his gun holster. Taranenko caresses him as he details some of the changes he has detected in the enemy: “Despite superiority in weapons, they are afraid of close-range combat, they have no motivation.”

This is an advantage that has allowed them to access until recently occupied villages, says Taranenko. Another factor in its favor is the network of neighbors in the occupied territories who inform them of Russian movements. During the tour of the zero line with officers from the High Command of the Army for the South region, one of the people in the delegation explains to EL PAÍS that he is in permanent contact by phone with farmers on the other side of the enemy lines to notify them instantly of the takeoff of Russian observation drones. On the horizon, barely three kilometers away, the Russian shells fall one after another on the trenches of the defending Army. The answer is not long in coming, it is the roar of the M-777 cannons, one of the western weapons most appreciated by Ukraine.

Lahouvka also shows this newspaper a new computer program developed in Ukraine, which has not been officially reported, and which allows each unit to locate potential enemy targets within its radius of action, confirmed or pending confirmation, and those who have reported networks of Ukrainian partisans in invaded territory.

A soldier from the Ukrainian 17th Armored Brigade keeps watch on the Kherson front.
A soldier from the Ukrainian 17th Armored Brigade keeps watch on the Kherson front.Christian Segura

Zelensky has announced that to complete the counteroffensive, the Armed Forces need to increase the number of troops to one million — there are currently about 750,000 men involved in defense actions, according to a count by the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw. Taranenko believes that before increasing the infantry, it is a priority to improve communication between the different branches of the Army and, above all, improve the training of soldiers. “It doesn’t matter if they are a million or ten million if they are not well prepared,” says Shatalov. “I am already relieving my soldiers with reservists and volunteers, and I can say that it is very difficult to replace a regular soldier. And to attack, more than defend, training is essential”, he adds.

Alexander Yakorenko is 48 years old and has been at the front for five months. He hasn’t been a day of service away from war. The battalion cannot afford it, now the relief of the wounded is prioritized. Yakorenko rests for a moment on a sofa in the reception area of ​​the sanatorium converted into a barracks. Twenty minutes earlier he was doing it in a trench. “Our order is to get the Russians out of there, we have them two kilometers away, but without weapons we will continue to sit in the trenches,” explains this man who is almost two meters tall and has an affable look. “With the drones roaming freely, the Russians are more effective in attacks. If we had better artillery, drones and anti-aircraft batteries, we’d kick them out fast.”

Shatalov, its commander, assures that the arrival on the scene of the Himar long-range missile multi-launchers, provided by the United States, has been noticed because they are interrupting the Russian supply chain, above all by destroying the main arsenals. “There are nights when there is silence, and that is because of the Himar.” Meanwhile, according to the sources consulted from the 98th Tactical Battalion, the Russians are improving their entrenchment and are mining everything, from crop fields to buildings, even with prohibited weapons, according to international treaties, they say.

Sergeant Major Serhii Golup, with a Javelin anti-tank missile.
Sergeant Major Serhii Golup, with a Javelin anti-tank missile.Christian Segura

Sergeant Major Serhii Golup is 32 years old and leads an anti-tank team of the 17th Armored Brigade: he and his men are the ones who organize ambushes against Russian tanks to nullify them with the famous portable Javelin missiles. Golup is another veteran, despite his age, who speaks clearly: “The Javelins are weapons to defend, but for an offense you need more tanks. For a counterattack with the minimum guarantees we would need three times more ammunition and three times more soldiers, but to go really well, we would have to multiply our resources by five”.

Shatalov does not want to venture what could happen if Russia’s defense continues to strengthen in Kherson and winter comes, when the movement of armored vehicles on frozen terrain is easier, but what is clear to him is that the fate of the war depends on weapons provide Ukraine with its allies.

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