STAVKY, Ukraine – Riding down the road with his men in pursuit of retreating Russian soldiers, a battalion commander encounters an abandoned Russian armored vehicle, its engine still running. Inside there was a sniper rifle, rocket-propelled grenade, helmet and belongings. The men have disappeared.
“They gave up everything: personal care, helmets,” said the commander, who uses the codename Swat. “I think it’s a special unit, but they’re panicking. It was raining heavily, the road was bad, so they dropped all their belongings and moved.”
After months of quiet fighting and holding the line under withered Russian artillery barges, Ukrainian soldiers are feeling frustrated because smash the Russian lines in the northeast three weeks ago, and their recapture of territories captured by the Russian military earlier this year. They have almost recaptured the entire Kharkiv province, as well as territory in each of the four regions where President Vladimir V. Putin declared annexation for Russia.
There was little time for reflection for the Ukrainians as they counterattacked, focusing on putting pressure on the retreating Russian troops to prevent the Russian troops from regrouping. However, after months in the trenches never seeing the enemy’s face, Ukrainian soldiers and commanders now engaged the Russians up close and had the opportunity to increase the size of their opponents.
“We have the power to do this,” says Swat. “Because they’re panicking right now, they’re really panicking.”
A 58-year-old soldier, Swat retired to join the Carpathian Sich, a volunteer battalion that took command after his predecessor was killed in battle near Izium in June.
The battalion was at the forefront of the fighting, providing flank support in battles for the strategically important cities of Izium and Lyman in recent weeks. Four days ago, the battalion captured another town further east, helping to secure a series of dams and the last settlements in northern Donetsk province for Ukraine.
The battles were quick, and during the flight from Izium, caused a lot of panic on the Russian side. After capturing Izium, Swat said, his unit pursued the Russians for 15 miles on the road in one day. A few more days and the Ukrainian army was at the gate of Lyman, 30 miles south of Izium; Swat’s group moved east to thwart any attempt by the Russian army to send reinforcements.
The day Lyman fell, his battalion was attacking another town further east. He asked for security reasons not to disclose the location. His units captured the town in a day without loss, despite nine wounded soldiers. By the third day, they had searched and secured the town and handed it over to another group for them to pull back and recharge.
Then, after three weeks of successful attacks and minimal losses, the battalion lost five men to a Russian missile attack and Swat lost a close friend when their vehicle was hit by a mine. Swat was driving but survived a concussion.
With tears in his eyes as he talked about his friend in an interview, he asked for a reporter not the sugary events of war but only success stories.
During the battle for Izium, Swat was preparing to attack when he saw the Russians suddenly pull back, he said. His deputy commander said that Ukrainian brigades attacking from the north had occupied a major highway, cutting off the supply lines of Russian troops.
They rescheduled the attack and the unit entered from the south and captured a high point in the city.
Russian armored vehicles are on the defensive and firing machine guns, Swat said. “But everyone was so excited, no one stopped,” he said. “I ran with a pistol. It’s like a small winning feeling. It’s unbelievable, you feel it in your heart, you feel happy.”
“We got this hill,” he said, “It was happiness, people jumping, shooting, hugging.”
The men were discharging their weapons, not listening when he ordered them to cease fire, he said. It was only a small duel, as the Russians had retreated, but capturing Izium had given them great confidence. It was a vindication of three months of grueling fighting with defensive positions under assault by Russian artillery and air strikes that cost them many lives, he said.
As they ran down the road south from Izium after the Russian retreat, they caught some enemy soldiers napping in a camp in the woods. “They were surprised, seven of them,” he said. “No one expected that after lunch we would advance on a forest road.”
Some Russians, dismayed and scared, and some hungry, were ready to give up on themselves, he said. But some continued to fight, believing Russia’s conviction that the Ukrainians would torture and kill them if they let them be captured.
On one occasion, a Russian soldier pulled the pin of a grenade and killed himself, saying he would never let himself be taken prisoner, Swat said. “We reached out to him but it was too late,” he said. “So they’re also brave soldiers, and they’re scared.”
His battalion took more than 30 Russians prisoner during the seven months of fighting, he said, 23 of them in the counterattack. “We just take information from them, give them water, food, warm clothes and send them to higher levels,” he said.
It was a difficult learning curve for his men, not only in survival but also in humanity. A 27-year-old American platoon captain from his battalion, who used the codename Boris, said one of the fiercest moments of the war was when he held a glass of water for a Russian prisoner to drink.
But combat units have little time to chase deserters.
In some places, local residents told them they were covering for Russian soldiers who had fled or were left behind, but Swat said he had no time to stop. He said that for the past few days, the Ukrainian air force reconnaissance had been tracking Russian units walking through the forest with effective military tactics – spreading out, moving slowly – but again their units he was too helpless to pursue them.
Platoon commander Boris said his units had made several attacks on Izium from the southwest in the weeks leading up to the counterattack, luring the Russians to reinforce in that direction. When the full force of the counterattack came from the north, they did not expect it, he said.
That’s not to say there’s no resistance.
Some Ukrainian commanders and soldiers said that Russian troops often arrange in pre-dug machine gun nests. And once the Russian army retreats, it can be bombarded by Russian planes, artillery and long-range missiles. A powerful missile strike destroyed a former Russian command post in the town they recently seized, he said, killing five of his men.
“It’s like a cold faucet,” says Swat. Referring to the five people who died, he said: “For two days, I was like crazy. They are young men. “
For all the recent defeats, he said, he doesn’t think the Russian army can be broken. “They’re going to fight, they’re going to keep fighting,” he said. “That’s the Slavic mentality: fight for your friends. They also have dead friends.”
He and his men both expressed concern about mobilization in Russia, and the new strength it would bring to the Russian side.
Ukraine’s military is growing stronger, but it’s still not where it needs to be, Swat said. “For all these little victories, it’s been a very, very difficult time,” he said of the final seven months of the war. “Slowly we recovered, but we are not there yet. And Russia has a lot of power, and it is not limited to its weapons.”
In the village of Stavky, about 10 miles from the front line, the sound of Russian shelling of recently recaptured settlements to the east was loud enough for soldiers and civilians to stop talking and listening.
But commanders and soldiers seem to agree that the Ukrainian army should keep pushing before the Russian side can regroup.
“We only have a month to do this right now, because right now they are panicking,” Swat said. And winter has come. “Now we need winter clothes, and we will have mud.”