A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 14, 2023

Battle-Hardened Ukrainian Units Advance As Russian Morale Problems Spread

As the battle-hardened defenders of Bakhmut, Vuhledar and other Donbas charnel houses now advance, they are finding that their training and new weapons are paying off in firepower and protection. 

But the Russian defenders they are attacking appear to suffer from low morale driven by fear - according to new POWs - of both the Ukrainians new weapons and their own officers' treating them "like livestock." JL 

Marcus Walker and Ievgeniia Sivorka report in the Wall Street Journal:

The 68th Jaeger Brigade spent the past year defending trenches against Russian onslaughts. Last week, they went on the attack. Used to fighting in fields and hills, they trained in house-to-house combat and used American-made armored vehicles to blast open a Russian strongpoint. The last Russian defenders ran away through their own minefield. Few made it. Early battles are displaying Ukrainian troops’ determination and firepower. Russian soldiers taken prisoner described their discontent with their commanders’ wasteful use of men and their fear of the Ukrainians’ new weaponry. Russian marines “were screaming and panicking. They are quite broken right now” in terms of morale."

The Ukrainian 68th Jaeger Brigade spent the past year defending trenches in the country’s east against Russian onslaughts. Last week, they went on the attack.

On Saturday, three platoons from the 68th took the village of Blahodatne from a larger Russian infantry force after a methodical firefight. Men from the Jaeger, used to fighting in fields and hills, said they had trained themselves in house-to-house combat and described using their American-made armored vehicles to blast open a Russian strongpoint. The last Russian defenders ran away through their own minefield. Few made it.

Four of the Jaegers were killed taking Blahodatne, and several were wounded, men from the unit said.

It was one of a string of local victories in this area in the first days of Ukraine’s big offensive. Ukrainian forces, armed with newly delivered Western tanks and armored vehicles, have begun an ambitious, monthslong operation to take back as much as they can of the nearly 20% of their country that Russia currently occupies. The early focus of assaults has been in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions in the south and east.

The past week’s battles have also highlighted Russian forces’ problem of low morale, according to several Russian soldiers taken prisoner in recent days who spoke to The Wall Street Journal.


“The battles are fierce, but we are moving forward,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address late on Monday. Muddy ground after recent rain is among the difficulties facing troops, he said.

Rescue workers meanwhile were digging through the rubble of an apartment block in the central Ukrainian city of Kryviy Rih after it was struck by a Russian missile overnight. At least six civilians were killed and around 25 were wounded, some critically, officials said.

The first week of the offensive has seen probes by small units in several sections of the 600-mile front in Ukraine’s south and east, as troops test for vulnerabilities in Russia’s positions and clear paths for bigger assaults on what lies beyond: a formidable line of Russian fortifications.

In the southern Zaporizhzhia region, Ukrainian troops have made only small gains so far. Some units have struggled against Russian minefields and airstrikes. The 47th Mechanized Brigade, with many troops and officers freshly trained by U.S. forces in Germany over the winter, suffered heavy losses last week, including a number of German-made Leopard 2 tanks and U.S.-made Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

In next-door Donetsk, however, troops from experienced brigades such as the 68th have made steady progress, driving Russian forces out of a string of villages along the Mokri Yaly River. Starting from around the town of Velyka Novosilka, Ukrainian units are pushing south toward the Russians’ main defensive line, replete with antitank obstacles.

The early battles around Velyka Novosilka are displaying Ukrainian troops’ determination and firepower—the former driven by the country’s suffering since Russia launched its full-scale invasion last year, the latter boosted by the heavy weapons from the U.S. and European allies.

River Offensive

Ukraine recaptured a series of villages down the Mokri Yaly River in the Donetsk region.

Russian fortifications


Claimed Russian advances

Russian control

Area of detail

Claimed Ukrainian advances

Front-line areas


Velyka Novosilka







Mokri Yaly River

5 miles

5 km

Note: Areas of control, fortifications as of June 12

Sources: Institute for the Study of War and AEI's Critical Threats Project (Russian-controlled areas); Brady Africk, American Enterprise Institute (Russian fortifications)

Some Ukrainian units have probed well beyond the known front lines. Two soldiers with a reconnaissance unit said they pushed deep into Russian-held territory on Thursday night, fighting against Russian marines. “They were screaming and panicking,” said one of the Ukrainians. “They are quite broken right now” in terms of morale, he said. The Russians retreated, but blew up a small dam, flooding the road and forcing the Ukrainians to pause.

The villages along the Mokri Yaly River, trapped between the two armies for months, were already badly damaged by artillery duels. Hardly any civilians remain. Weeds have taken over the abandoned farmland that stretches all around.

Russian forces are hitting back at the villages they have lost south of Velyka Novosilka with artillery and airstrikes, Ukrainian troops said, but the advance continues. Several Russian soldiers taken prisoner near Velyka Novosilka, who spoke with the Journal at a detention facility, described their discontent with their commanders’ wasteful use of men and their fear of the Ukrainians’ new weaponry.

One of them, a Russian conscript from Vladivostok in Russia’s far east, said his unit knew exactly when the Ukrainians were coming, having intercepted radio traffic, but could do nothing about it. “Among ourselves, we were saying we won’t be able to withstand the counteroffensive,” he said.

The softly spoken former warehouse worker described a Ukrainian assault near the village of Staromaiorske with a trembling voice. First, mortars and artillery pounded their positions. When U.S.-made MaxxPro armored vehicles opened fire, “it was so intense that you couldn’t raise your head,” he said.

The men to his right fled. Those to his left had gone silent on the radio. He and three comrades remained in a trench. One of the men shot himself. The Vladivostok conscript and another man surrendered. As Ukrainian troops lay them on the ground and bound their hands, the fourth Russian attacked with hand grenades, wounding several Ukrainians before being killed, the Russian prisoner said.

“The combat spirit of fighters at the front line has fallen,” said a rifleman with Russian paramilitary group Storm Z. Russia tried to press its own offensive in Donetsk throughout the winter, but heavy casualties outweighed its meager territorial gains. “We were advancing by quantity, not by quality,” he said. “We were exchanging 10 of our lives for one of theirs.

A former soldier from St. Petersburg, the rifleman was serving a prison sentence for drug-dealing when Storm Z signed him up with the promise of a pardon if he fought in Ukraine for six months. On the Donetsk front, he and his comrades were threatened with being shot by an antiretreat unit if they refused to advance, he said. He heard one such shooting ordered over the radio, and reported as carried out. “They treat us like livestock,” he said.

In the rolling hills east of Velyka Novosilka, men from the Ukrainian 68th Jaeger were resting after their successful assault on Blahodatne. Ukrainian artillery rumbled in the distance.

The 68th was involved in the long and bloody battle this winter for the nearby town of Vuhledar, where it destroyed a large Russian armored column. The brigade’s second battalion has lost over 100 of its 700 men, said the battalion commander, known by his call sign Dolphin.

Dolphin worked for the Ukrainian central bank until 2014, when he joined the army during Russia’s first invasions of Crimea and Donbas. He has risen to command the battalion as other officers have been killed or wounded.

Last Thursday, after Ukrainian marines had broken through the first Russian lines south of Velyka Novosilka, Dolphin’s battalion was asked to help take Blahodatne, where other troops were having difficulty. The Jaegers were delighted, he said: “We’ve been holding this line for almost a year now, trying to deal with their offense. Now we have a chance to advance.”

Dolphin watched 60 of his men approach the village, using drones hovering above them, on screens at his command post. Engineers had previously cleared a path through a Russian minefield. The Russian force was estimated at well over 100 men, professional soldiers from Arkhangelsk, Dolphin said. Russian artillery covered the defenders.

The gardens and grape fields around the village were abandoned and overgrown, and the men struggled to orient themselves in the settlement’s destroyed streets, said one soldier who took part.

The firefight took three days. MaxxPros blasted Russians out of a tree line. The Jaegers worked their way through houses and tunnels that the Russians had dug. They took turns sleeping in basements. By Saturday, the Russians were firing from two strongpoints: a school and a community center.

The Ukrainians used a MaxxPro’s .50-caliber gun to rip open a brick wall on the second floor of the community center. They then fired rocket-propelled grenades through the hole, killing many defenders. Ukrainians cleared out the lower floors room by room. The Russians on the top floor, cornered, gave up.

The Jaegers called on the Russians holding the school to surrender. “Do you want to go home?” they shouted in Russian. The reply was a hail of bullets. But the Russians ran out of ammunition. The survivors ran out of a rear exit, through the minefield. Only two escaped, said Jaegers involved in the action.


The Ukrainians were so elated that Dolphin said he tried to calm them down.

“It’s too early to celebrate victory,” Dolphin said he told his troops. “This is just the beginning. Other villages are waiting for us.”


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