In a devastated village near Ukraine’s southern front line, the thud of incoming Russian artillery is a constant reminder of the hard battle ahead for Kyiv’s troops in a planned major counter-offensive.
Signs of destruction are all around in the village, which was only liberated from Russian occupation after intense fighting.
Almost every house has been levelled to the ground or badly damaged, there are burnt out cars, craters left by rockets and there is no sign of the people who once called the area home.
Now a small detachment of Ukrainian soldiers holds the position in sandbagged trenches and the wreckage of destroyed buildings, always alert to enemy drones in the air. A couple of dogs and a cat keep them company during the long, hot days of waiting.
“There are those who are afraid — but what can we do, we need to defend our homeland, because if I don’t do it then my children will be forced to do it,” said Stanislav, 49, who left his wife and two kids at home to volunteer to fight when Russia invaded.
Kyiv has vowed to launch a counter-offensive to retake the strategic Kherson region and President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday that his forces were advancing “step by step”.
For now, the troops at the position visited by AFP said Ukraine was doing well just to hold the front line.
None doubted a push for Kherson city, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) away, would come eventually — even if the prospect looks brutal and Ukraine still needs more big guns and armoured vehicles to make larger gains.
“We really don’t have enough artillery here — if we fire eight times at them, they fire back 48 times. For now they have superiority in artillery,” said Stanislav, who comes from the neighbouring Odessa region.
“But we are holding on.”
– Key battleground –
While Russia has thrown the bulk of its forces at the bloody onslaught in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, the battle for Kherson could prove a more defining fight in shaping the future of the war.
Kherson was the first region to fall to Moscow after it launched the invasion and retaking it would be a major symbolic and strategic victory for Ukraine.
Capturing Kherson city, the region’s capital, and the land around would expel Russian forces from prime territory north of its stronghold Crimea and cut off the Kremlin’s chances of launching a future push westwards along the Black Sea coast to Odessa.
The looming battle will also be a key test of whether Ukrainian forces, equipped with new longer range weapons from the West, can ever hope to push back the Russians and liberate the whole of the country.
Kyiv and Western intelligence have said Moscow is reinforcing its defences in the south to try to stave off any offensive and Russian forces have stepped up strikes on the nearby city of Mykolaiv in an apparent attempt to stall any Ukrainian push.
“We will liberate Kherson — that’s for sure. We will not give it away to the Russians,” said 45-year-old soldier Oleksandr, leaning his rifle against the edge of his trench.
“We need to withstand and then destroy the enemy horde.”
– ‘We are ready’ –
Ukraine has unleashed some of its most prized Western weaponry against the Russian lines on the south.
Kyiv’s forces have used US-supplied Himars guided missile systems, which have a range of 80 kilometres, to destroy weapons stores, command posts and disrupt supply lines deeper in occupied territory.
They have also pummelled a key bridge across the Dniepr river to Kherson city in a move that threatens to cut off the Russian troops deployed there.
Soldier Alex said he wanted to see more Himars sent to the southern front — but Ukraine only has a handful to spread out along the whole of its more than 1,000-kilometre front line.
He insisted that either way, Ukraine’s forces were prepared for any battle that lay ahead.
“We are ready to counterattack,” he said.
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