Ukraine’s army ad­vances slowly at Rus­sian front

Kyiv Post - - National - BY I LLIA PONOMARENK­O PONOMARENK­[email protected]

NOVOTOSHKI­VSKE and KRYMSKE, Ukraine — Dawn broke with shell­fire on June 22 near the Luhansk Oblast front­line town of Novotoshki­vske, some 600 kilo­me­ters south­east of Kyiv.

In a des­o­late field near a for­ti­fied Ukrainian army po­si­tion de­fend­ing the town, the ground started shak­ing and the air was rent by ear-split­ting ex­plo­sions and shock­waves. One af­ter one, shell blasts burst from the field, throw­ing soil into the air and pro­duc­ing a dense haze of acrid smoke.

The heavy thun­der con­tin­ued to roll for sev­eral min­utes, and then si­lence fell again on the blitzed bat­tle­field.

By the light of day, as the Ukrainian sol­diers emerged from their dugout shel­ters, they dis­cov­ered at least 20 new im­pact craters from 122-mil­lime­ter ar­tillery shells, a weapon banned un­der the Minsk agree­ments.

For­tu­nately, the at­tack re­sulted in no ca­su­al­ties.

For the Ukrainian mil­i­tary, this heavy strike by Rus­sian-led forces, who hold ground just three kilo­me­ters to the south, came as no sur­prise. De­spite dozens of cease-fires hav­ing been agreed at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble in Minsk (the lat­est one was sup­posed to start on July 1), the re­lent­less stale­mated war­fare in the Don­bas still drags on, with ex­changes of fire by heavy weapons a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence.

While the com­bat ar­eas are gen­er­ally calm by day, the fight­ing flares up at night. The two war­ring par­ties, nei­ther in a po­si­tion to launch a suc­cess­ful ma­jor of­fen­sive, con­tinue an ex­haust­ing, low-level strug­gle for strate­gic po­si­tions in the gray zone be­tween their front lines.

Un­der the cloak of dark­ness, they fight for high ground or vi­tal road­ways, or probe each other’s de­fenses for weak points.

De­spite that, the armies’ tac­ti­cal maps have seen few changes in the past few years, and the war has be­come a never-end­ing, self-sus­tain­ing process, with no clear out­come in sight.

The June 22 shelling at­tack started at 4 a.m. lo­cal time, ex­actly on the day and the hour Nazi Ger­many in­vaded the Soviet Union 77 years ago in 1941.

“That was a kind of sym­bolic re­venge upon us, the ‘ fas­cists,’” the sol­diers said as they picked up sharp shell frag­ments from black im­pact holes, still warm af­ter the blasts.

“We ex­pected them to do so. Those bas­tards de­lib­er­ately se­lected frag­men­ta­tion rounds to tar­get as much man­power as pos­si­ble.”

Many other po­si­tions of Ukraine’s 53rd Mech­a­nized Brigade, which is cur­rently de­fended the area, were also at­tacked at dawn. But as the new day broke, the sounds of war over Novotoshki­vske died down.

But they erupted again af­ter dusk.

Strate­gic road

On the bat­tle­front be­tween Novo­to­shk­isvke and an­other key Ukrainian-con­trolled town — Krymske, some 12 kilo­me­ters to the east — a strug­gle is go­ing on for con­trol of a strate­gic road, the P-66, one of Luhansk Oblast’s main ar­ter­ies.

Dubbed the “Bakhmut High­way” by the mil­i­tary, it con­nects the key Ukrainian-con­trolled cities of Lysy­chansk and Sievierodo­netsk, and then runs fur­ther east through the com­bat zone di­rectly to Rus­sianoc­cu­pied Luhansk.

That makes con­trol of it a strate­gic goal for both sides.

In late 2014 and early 2015, Rus­sian-led forces man­aged to drive Ukrainian troops back from two for­ti­fied check­points, Nos. 32 and 31 on the Bakhmut High­way close to Luhansk, af­ter dra­matic bat­tles with heavy death tolls.

Nev­er­the­less, the Ukrainian de­fen­sive line re­formed near Krymske and Novotoshki­vske, al­low­ing Ukraine to re­tain par­tial con­trol over the cru­cial road.

In the sum­mer of 2017, this area saw some of the heav­i­est out­breaks of fight­ing of the year. At that time, com­bat units from Ukraine’s 93th Mech­a­nized Brigade knocked the en­emy out of their po­si­tions south of the P-66 road and gained new footholds on high ground just next to the Rus­sian-oc­cu­pied towns of Zh­elobok and Donet­skiy to the east of Novo­to­shkivke.

But af­ter this ad­vance, the sit­u­a­tion in the area sank into dead­lock again for an­other year.

Calm be­fore storm

In the day­time, the war for the Bakhmut High­way is put on hold. Bursts of ma­chine gun fire, thun­der­ous blasts of in­com­ing mor­tar shells, and bat­tle cries are ex­changed for or­di­nary chores.

Calm and easy go­ing, the sol­diers be­hind their field for­ti­fi­ca­tions do laun­dry, and clean their weapons. At other times they smoke, drink tea or cof­fee and eat sand­wiches, while oth­ers work out with makeshift weights and par­al­lel bars.

Many among them are na­tive to ru­ral re­gions of Ukraine, so even when at war, they are com­fort­able with a coun­try life­style. Right be­hind the com­bat line, one can some­times find small en­clo­sures with geese or pigs, raised by the sol­diers mostly to fight bore­dom, rather than for food.

Farther be­hind the lines, in a block of de­stroyed sum­mer cot­tages south of Novotoshki­vske, the sol­diers have even planted small patches of pota­toes and toma­toes in de­serted veg­etable gar­dens right be­side the front line's trenches.

By day, many of the sol­diers don’t even emerge from their trenches, pre­fer­ring to hide from melt­ing sum­mer heat in their cool dugouts, chat­ting on Face­book or tak­ing a nap af­ter four-hour stints on duty.

“This is how it al­ways feels af­ter a hard fight,” says Sergeant Evhen Bon­darenko as he sits on a wooden bench, sip­ping cof­fee from a metal jar. “With these skir­mishes hap­pen­ing al­most ev­ery night, and with­out any ma­jor changes for years, a soldier wants to set up his sweet home right here, at the front.”

But to­wards evening, the sounds of war re­turn. A muf­fled clap comes from a wooded area near the front line — prob­a­bly the re­port of a 40-mil­lime­ter un­der-bar­rel gre­nade launcher for an as­sault ri­fle.

“No wor­ries, that’s not at us,” Bon­darenko says.

In fact, this po­si­tion is much safer than it was pre­vi­ously. Af­ter months of sus­tained fight­ing, Ukraine’s forces had by mid-June man­aged to ad­vance sev­eral hun­dred me­ters to­wards the en­emy lines south of Novo­to­shkivkse, thus se­cur­ing their rear­wards de­fenses and the town from en­emy fire.

This tac­tic of a creep­ing ad­vance, car­ried out by the army’s best-trained scout­ing teams, is bear­ing fruit. Ukrainian troops now hold po­si­tions in a semi-cir­cle around the Rus­sian-oc­cu­pied towns of Donet­skiy and Zh­elobok, which are lo­cated right

be­side the P-66 high­way. Re­tak­ing the towns is now a real pos­si­bil­ity, although the en­emy would not yield con­trol of this part of the strate­gic road with­out a bloody bat­tle.

Com­ing home

And the de­fend­ers of an­other key Ukrainian-con­trolled town of Krymske, 12 kilo­me­ters east of Novo­to­shkivke, cer­tainly don’t ex­pect the war to peter out with­out fur­ther fight­ing.

A com­pany of sol­diers com­manded by Se­nior Lieu­tenant Dmytro Lysyt­sya, a young of­fi­cer orig­i­nally from Luhansk, is dig­ging in hard to turn their area into a fortress should ma­jor fight­ing for the Bakhmut High­way start again.

“In fact, here we’re fac­ing the hos­tile ter­ri­tory from three di­rec­tions,” the of­fi­cer says as he points to swathes of flat, cen­tral Don­bas steppe to the south and east.

“Be­sides, the mil­i­tants of­ten hit us from in­side civil­ian ar­eas, for in­stance (from the oc­cu­pied vil­lages of Sokol­nyky and Zna­menka ap­prox­i­mately 5 kilo­me­ters to the east).”

“So my guys here are do­ing a good job of what ev­ery in­fantry trooper should be per­fect at — build­ing new for­ti­fi­ca­tions to meet an at­tack­ing en­emy with full fire­power.”

Lysyt­sya has or­dered most of his fight­ers to rest in their cool un­der­ground shel­ters dur­ing the peak of UKRAINE front­line Kyiv the sum­mer heat be­tween noon and 4 p.m. Un­der the blaz­ing sun and in full com­bat gear, he walks along the line newly built dugouts and trenches, check­ing ev­ery soldier on duty is at his post and on the alert.

Be­hind the rear line of his com­pany’s strong­point, sev­eral lonely me­mo­rial crosses stand, a sad re­mem­brance of the past heavy fight­ing for this small patch of flat steppe on the south­ern bank of the Siver­skiy Donets River.

“That’s where the guys from the 93rd Brigade were killed in ac­tion last sum­mer,” the young of­fi­cer says as he salutes the memorials. “Some­times, I sit near them all night long to un­bur­den my soul.”

As evening de­scends again on the war front, Lysyt­sya picks up his ra­dio set and or­ders his troops to grad­u­ally in­crease their com­bat readi­ness: “Wake up, boys. The rum­ble is about to start soon.”

“I’m sure we will end this sit­ting war,” he adds as he looks to­wards his Rus­sian-oc­cu­pied home city of Luhansk to the east of his trenches. “We will get back home some sunny day.”

“Some of Ukraine’s sons will have the honor of be­ing killed in com­bat for their coun­try, just like those guys from the 93rd. I be­lieve we’re all ready for this.”

(Volodymyr Petrov)

A Ukrainian soldier leans on a ma­chine gun mu­ni­tion box in a for­ti­fied dugout near a front­line town of Krymske in Luhansk Oblast on June 23.

P-66 road

A map of the com­bat area in Rus­sia's war in the eastern Ukrainian Don­bas along the strate­gic P-66 road, just west of the Rus­sian-oc­cu­pied city of Luhansk, which is lo­cated 827 kilo­me­ters south­east of Kyiv. (Yu­liana Ro­manyshyn)

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