A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 24, 2023

Ukrainian Forces Ability To Adapt Is Creating Offensive Success

Many of the troops now leading the advances south from Robotyne and Orizhaine were trained in Europe to fight like NATO soldiers who assueme they have superior equipment - and air superiority.

The Ukrainians have not enjoyed such advantages so have adapted their tactics to the harsh reality they face. And the result is that they are now making gains against the most relentlessly complex defenses seen in Europe since WWII. JL 

James Marson reports in the Wall Street Journal:

In late June, Ukraine switched tactics, and started advancing methodically in small units, defeating one Russian position after another. Assault squads would walk miles on foot. They hugged tree lines for rare cover on the open steppe, or moved at night to avoid detection. Bradleys were a target for the Russians, so they would be used primarily to deliver troops or to evacuate the wounded. They were advancing. “The brigade is highly motivated. No one has ever said, ‘I’m not going.’ ”

The Ukrainians on the front lines of the counteroffensive were crouched in the woods when they spotted the Russian patrol.

The five troops had left behind their U.S.-supplied armored vehicles, which proved easy targets for Russian artillery. Instead, after walking for hours, they were aiming to retake territory by yards. The company had already seized three trenches in close-quarter combat. Winning in the woods would move them another small step toward the Azov coast, their ultimate goal, which would slice the Russian occupying army in two.

After a brief skirmish, the Ukrainians withdrew, fearful that a larger Russian force could be lurking, two of them recalled. Then they realized one of their comrades was missing. As the Ukrainians moved back, he came crawling toward them, his left leg bloodied and limp. A member of the unit dragged the injured man away as others opened fire.

A 48-year-old journalist nicknamed Reporter brought up the rear. Suddenly, grenades began flying. After one explosion, Reporter cried out, “I’m a 300!” Soviet-era code for a battlefield casualty. By the end of the day, only three of the five-strong team would be able to fight on.

This is what the Ukrainian counteroffensive looks like after two months: a slow and bloody advance on foot.

Units such as this one—part of 2nd Company of the 1st Battalion of the 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade—were trained and equipped by the U.S. and its allies to use heavy equipment to smash through entrenched Russian positions and advance deep into occupied territory. The Russians had prepared, too, by laying dense minefields and digging deep trenches across the patchwork of farm fields.

When the Ukrainians launched their assaults at the start of June, their Western-supplied tanks and armored vehicles struggled to advance under withering fire from helicopters, antitank missiles and artillery.

So in late June, Ukraine switched tactics, and started advancing methodically in small units, a new phase in the conflict that is proving to be arduous, slow and risky. Instead of sweeping across the fields, the company from the 47th began battling a few hundred yards at a time, with occasional success—the brigade said on Tuesday its troops had taken the village of Robotyne—but with danger lurking in every trench and tree line.

The original plan

The 47th Brigade was honed for Ukraine’s D-Day. With the war largely stalemated late last year, and Russia occupying nearly 20% of the country, Ukrainian commanders singled out the former volunteer battalion for expansion, which meant receiving training abroad and equipment from Western allies.

The members of the 2nd Company were typical. Roman Pankratov, a 38-year-old who had managed the garden section at a branch of Ukraine’s equivalent of Home Depot, became a machine-gunner. Among the assault infantry were Olena Ivanenko, a 41-year-old restaurateur, and Olena Kuznetsova, a 27-year-old schoolteacher from Bucha who enlisted after she returned to her hometown to find dead bodies on the streets. Mykhailo Kotsyurba, a 38-year-old realtor, became the commander of a Bradley, the U.S. Army’s main infantry-fighting vehicle.

In Latvia, they spent five weeks learning the basics of infantry fighting. They traveled to Germany for a month and a half to learn how to use a Bradley.

Reporter, a journalist named Dmytro Rybakov, transferred to 2nd Company late last year from another unit in the 47th. He became an assistant to Pankratov, who had the nickname Sad, or Garden. “He liked our fighting spirit,” said Sad. “People didn’t need anyone to motivate them to learn.”

Reporter, a father to two teenage daughters, who has an interest in history and philosophy, stood out for his intelligence and enthusiasm. He also complained to Sad about work in the kitchen when he thought they should be training. “I’m not here to clean jars,” he told Sad. “I came to liberate my homeland.”

After lunch one day in Germany, Reporter left his rifle behind in the canteen, according to soldiers in the company. As a punishment, an officer made him carry a stick instead. His fellow soldiers considered it excessive, but Reporter took it on the chin. He wrote RPG-22 on the stick, the name of a Soviet-designed rocket launcher, and carried it with his head held high.

When Ukraine launched the first phase of the counteroffensive in June, the 47th Brigade was assigned one of the toughest tasks: to blast a path down the shortest route to the Sea of Azov from the city of Orikhiv.

In the first 10 days, 2nd Company didn’t once dismount from their Bradleys and enter battle. Vehicles lost their way through confusion or a lack of night-vision equipment. One demining vehicle was blown up by mines laid by the Ukrainians themselves. When they got closer to enemy lines, the Russian defense was ferocious.

In one assault, a Russian antitank missile struck and disabled the lead vehicle in a long Ukrainian column as it entered a minefield, recalled Kotsyurba, the Bradley commander, better known as Kocherha, or Fire Iron. The vehicles behind it were stuck, and the Russians jammed their communications, then fired antitank missiles, rocket artillery and laser-guided missiles from helicopters. 

One Leopard tank, turning to escape, detonated two land mines. Kocherha managed to pull his Bradley out after its turret stopped turning.

Two further attempts a few nights later ended similarly. The Russians were clearly zeroed in on the route.

The pivot

The next assault—and its failures—became a turning point. On June 17, the company set out to take two parallel trenches about 1 1/2 miles long. The operation was supposed to clear a path to a Russian supply route.

They started early in the morning. Once a path had been cleared through a minefield, Kocherha’s Bradley set out for the nearest trench, followed by a second Bradley with eight troops crammed inside, including Reporter.

Kocherha set his troops down at the trench when an antitank missile hit the second Bradley 70 yards short of its target, concussing the crew. One of them managed to scramble out and open a small door. The troops ran for the trench.

Kocherha’s Bradley was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, disabling the turret and the gun. The attack temporarily blinded Kocherha. He was concussed and injured on his arm.

The platoon pressed along the trench, which was more than 7-feet deep. At times, they were so close to Russian troops they made eye contact, Reporter later told his family. Ivanenko, the restaurateur better known as Ryzh, turned and saw Reporter. Unlike most of the others, she later recalled, he had no fear in his eyes. “I’ll cover you,” he said. They pushed forward.

The Ukrainians needed to dig firing positions to fend off Russian counterattacks. Sad spotted that Reporter had a shovel and told him to dig.

“I can’t,” Reporter responded. His fingers were curled tight. He couldn’t relax them because of the adrenaline coursing through his body. 

Sad had the same problem. It took them 15 minutes to unclench.

Over several hours, the Ukrainians held off repeated Russian counter attacks that were backed by rocket artillery and mortars. As dusk fell, they were short on water and ammunition. Reinforcements hadn’t arrived, and they were under threat of being surrounded.

As the Ukrainians prepared to pull out, Reporter said he would stay to provide covering fire. Others encouraged him to leave, but he refused. “I came to fight,” he told them.

The withdrawing troops included Sad, Ryzh and Eiry, the nickname for Kuznetsova, the teacher from Bucha. They struggled more than a mile up a slope toward the Ukrainian positions, exhausted, dehydrated and carrying the weapons of the walking wounded. 

Barely 20 yards from their goal, a Russian tank emerged and fired a shell, killing three of them and badly wounding four. Shrapnel hit Ryzh in the calf and Eiry in the arm. Sad was severely concussed and went into cardiac arrest. Medics revived him.

Reporter was nowhere to be seen, and they chalked him up as missing, presumed dead.

Plan B

Reporter turned up the following morning. He told the others that he had hunkered down overnight, killed a couple of Russian looters, and followed tank tracks back to Ukrainian positions at first light. The rest of 2nd Company began to look at him as among their bravest fighters.

But the assault’s failure had sapped morale. It was clear the Ukrainians would have to change tactics. They were losing armored vehicles at an unsustainable rate for little gain.

So they reverted to tactics used by other Ukrainian units earlier in the war: using small units to advance methodically, defeating one Russian position after another. Other Ukrainian units made a similar switch after having faced the same kinds of losses.

Assault squads would walk miles on foot, facing dehydration in the scorching heat as well as an entrenched enemy. They hugged tree lines for rare cover on the open steppe, or moved at night to avoid detection. Bradleys were a target for the Russians, so they would be used primarily to deliver troops or to evacuate the wounded. They were advancing. Reporter’s wife thought on a video call that he looked exhausted.

Over several days in mid-July, the company pushed the Russians out of three trenches of about 200 yards each along the edge of a wooded area. The woods now became a new front line. On July 17, Reporter, Donbas, a 23-year-old miner, and Mars, a 39-year-old sales supervisor at the eponymous confectionary company, were among the squad sent to clear it.

They crept along the trenches then into the trees and took up defensive positions to wait for instructions. Donbas spotted a Russian patrol and opened fire before starting a pullback to the nearest trench.

When they noticed Mars wasn’t with them, they crept back toward the woods and saw him crawling toward them, his left leg bloodied and limp. A bullet and shrapnel from a grenade had torn a 2-inch hole in the bone.

The Ukrainians took it in turns to pull Mars. They had made it to the trench when an automatic grenade launcher began firing at them, apparently directed by an aerial drone. Everyone took cover as best they could, in a dugout or in burrows made by Russian soldiers. Reporter hunkered down in the trench.

Seconds later, Donbas heard Reporter cry out.

Donbas dashed to his colleague, but had to return to cover as grenades rained in again. Donbas returned and saw smoke: Shrapnel had pierced Reporter’s radio and set it on fire. A Russian grenade had exploded right next to him, spraying his right leg, arm and torso with shrapnel, according to Donbas and a video of the aftermath. Reporter was still conscious, mumbling something about a drone, as his colleagues applied tourniquets. Two men carried him to the next trench, while others helped Mars.

When they reached the second trench, they were targeted by an explosive drone. Other soldiers used an antidrone rifle to disable it before it hit.

Reporter was dead. The men turned their attention to Mars. Hours later, an armored car came to evacuate him. As it sped away, a Russian tank fired and blew apart its tires. Somehow, the car made it to safety. Mars is now in hospital in western Ukraine facing a long rehabilitation.

Donbas is fighting in southeastern Ukraine. He is one of many questioning why their commanders seemed to throw them into such dangerous assaults.

“The brigade is highly motivated. No one has ever said, ‘I’m not going,’ ” said Donbas. “But when, every time you go out, your fellow soldiers are killed and injured, it’s psychologically tough.”

Many members of 2nd Company gathered at Reporter’s funeral. Days later, they went to another, for 24-year-old Yulia Shevchenko, killed when a headquarters building was hit by a Russian missile. They talk, without question, of returning to the fight.

Ryzh was planning extra training to overcome her fear of grenades. Eiry went to Bucha to fetch an off-road buggy funded by volunteers that she hopes will allow the soldiers to move quickly and less conspicuously.

Kocherha’s arm is in a sling and he can’t make a ball with his fist because of nerve damage. He is scheduled for an operation to remove shrapnel from his arm. Asked whether he would return to the front after recovery, he said, “My guys are there.”

Sad left the hospital at the start of August. He sat in a park in his hometown of Chernihiv one recent day, and mused about how most of the civilian men passing by would end up serving in the military. “It’s a question of our existence,” he said.


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