A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 12, 2023

How Ukrainian Volunteers Have Begun Turning the Tide In Southern Advance

Having abandoned NATO tactics which proved poorly thought out for this most modern of wars, Ukrainians forces are relying on volunteer units and individuals to assault Russian positions in small groups to roust them out of their prepared defenses. 

The tactics are working, creating small breakthroughs which can be exploited to create bigger ones in key areas like Robotyne. JL 

James Marson reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Ukraine has fallen back on the small-unit tactics that brought it success earlier in the 17-month war. They are fighting to take Robotyne, south toward the Sea of Azov to cut Russian occupation forces in two. Ukrainian soldiers have managed to gain a foothold in Robotyne. Assault teams walk long distances to avoid detection, sometimes taking captured Russian rifles so they pick up ammunition from the Russians they kill rather than lugging along extra rounds for Western-made guns. “We have turned the tide. The most important thing is to get in there, and the Russians will scatter.”

Under cover of darkness, 15 Ukrainian soldiers crept along tree lines to the edge of this Russian-occupied village in southeastern Ukraine and launched an assault just after dawn.

When the Ukrainians opened fire, Russian troops responded with a hail of machine-gun bullets. Ukrainian drones and artillery slammed into Russian positions. After a day of fierce fighting that killed two Ukrainian soldiers and injured others, the platoon managed to gain a foothold in Robotyne, a settlement of around 150 houses.

Ukraine’s two-month-old counteroffensive had advanced another mile.

Ukraine’s attempts in early June to smash through lines of entrenched Russian forces using large mechanized formations trained and equipped by the West stalled in the face of deep minefields and Russian air power. So Ukraine has fallen back on the kind of small-unit tactics that brought it success earlier in the 17-month war.

Ukraine southern front line

Ukrainian advances

Russian fortifications

Russian-held area


Velyka Novosilka









Area of detail

Sea of Azov

20 miles

20 km

Note: As of August 6
Sources: Institute for the Study of War and AEI’s Critical Threats Project (areas of control); staff reports

These kinds of operations are a specialty of Skala Special Unit, a group of around 170 men who are now on the leading edge of the Ukrainian campaign here. The soldiers, with varied civilian backgrounds and military experience, are led by Maj. Yuriy Harkaviy, whose hulking frame won him the nickname Skala, or Rock, after actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

From his headquarters near Orikhiv, Skala sends reconnaissance teams with aerial drones to spot Russian positions and equipment and call in artillery fire. He dispatches assault teams who walk for miles on foot along lines of trees before attacking.

The Wall Street Journal has followed Skala’s men for a year, during which the group retook parts of Ukraine’s northeast, suffered casualties after triggering a land mine, and chewed up Russian paramilitary fighters from the Wagner Group in the eastern city of Bakhmut. They are now fighting to take Robotyne, a small village on the route south toward a key goal of the counteroffensive: reaching the Sea of Azov to cut Russian occupation forces in two.

Skala’s men arrived in the area at the start of July. The Russians had spent months preparing defensive lines in the southeast, including miles of deep trenches and thousands of mines. And they had beaten back Ukraine’s initial attempts to advance in large columns with tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Ukrainian commanders decided that to move forward in a region of flat fields separated by thin tree lines, they would need better reconnaissance and infantry assault teams to help clear a path.

Skala moved into an abandoned house surrounded by mulberry trees to the north of Robotyne. Many of the men with him have fought since the first days of the war with little break. Most learned on the job. New volunteers had been picked up at training centers by Skala’s straight-talking chief of staff.

Before launching assaults in the area, Skala’s drone teams flew their craft day and night, getting a picture of Russian positions and directing artillery gunners to hit them. Assault teams walked long distances to avoid detection, sometimes taking Soviet-era or captured Russian rifles so they could pick up ammunition from the Russians they killed rather than lugging along extra rounds for Western-made guns.

Seized Russian weapons adorn a wall in Skala’s operations room, where banks of screens display drone feeds and an air-conditioning unit struggles against the summer heat.

Last week, Skala’s men ejected Russian troops from a trench and destroyed a machine-gun nest in a concrete bunker west of Robotyne. Early Tuesday, the Ukrainians assaulted the village from four directions. The team that attacked from the north advanced furthest, to the village cemetery, after overcoming a machine-gunner in the first house who was killed with an explosives-laden drone.

The Russians counterattacked with armored vehicles, grenades and mortars. As evening fell, Skala’s men needed reinforcements.

Skala called commanders in brigades nearby. They mustered volunteers: a handful from one brigade, a dozen from another and more than 20 from a third.

As Skala sketched out on a map how the teams should enter the village, one of his men spotted a Russian 120 mm mortar on its western edge. Skala gave the location to another commander by phone. Five minutes later, the officer called back: The mortar had been destroyed.

On the veranda, a dozen new recruits were preparing for battle. Among them was Anatoliy Shkryabniy, a 41-year-old nurse whose right arm has been weak since he was stabbed in the neck a decade ago. He volunteered for the army a month ago, and said the fingers on his right hand can pull a trigger. “Why should I wait for a missile to land in my apartment?” he said.

Beside him stood Ruslan Lutsenko, a 47-year-old farmhand with four children. “I have to defend them,” he said.

They piled into a green van and set out. Some would head to Robotyne, while others would be kept in reserve.

Meanwhile, Skala’s men were rushing to evacuate the injured.

A video of rescue efforts shot from a body camera shows a soldier leaping from the back of a U.S.-made Bradley fighting vehicle and running to a group, including two lying injured, who were taking cover behind another disabled armored vehicle.

“F—, guys, let’s drag them,” the soldier said.

The two injured men, exhausted and covered in dirt, resisted and remained on the ground. “Don’t shout,” one said as the others tried to invigorate him.

“Let’s get the f— out of here,” another soldier yelled. They dragged the groaning men into the back of the Bradley then closed the ramp.

In the fading daylight, another Skala soldier set out on a motorbike over paths along the side of farm fields. He made repeated trips to evacuate three injured men who clung on behind him.

As night fell, a drone team set out for a field about 3 miles from Robotyne to check for any Russian movement in the northern part of the village.

They covered themselves with anti-mosquito spray—“Our main enemy here,” one of them joked—and took up positions in trenches seized from Russians.

The pilot was a 31-year-old welder known as Lyutsyk, short for Lucifer, a nickname given to him in jest by his wife. He sent his drone, a quadcopter with four rotors, soaring toward Robotyne. As the sky darkened, he flicked a switch to turn on the craft’s thermal-imaging camera. He pointed out craters from Russian bombs and disabled Ukrainian vehicles that litter the battlefront. All was quiet.

Back at headquarters, Skala was poring over his map in the operations room.

“We have turned the tide,” he said. “The most important thing is to get in there, and the Russians will scatter.”

The following morning, Skala reported a successful operation: Despite suffering losses, the reinforcements had taken up firmer positions in the north of Robotyne.

“They went in and dug in,” he said. “Motivation is everything.”


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