When Ukraine announced On August 28 and the liberation of the village of Robotyne, the message sent The message to the world was that a breakthrough of the Russian lines was finally possible on the Southern Front.
Six weeks later, it has not materialized. And Ukrainian soldiers from the 65th brigade, the first to enter the locality, recognize that their control remains partial, speaking to AFP journalists in this area usually closed to the media.
< p>Lack of men, shells, drones… After four months of counter-offensive, these Ukrainian soldiers talk about their determination and their departure for the attack every day, but they also explain that they can only nibble away at the ground, at the cost of heavy losses against better-armed Russian forces entrenched behind powerful fortifications.
Igor Korol, commander of the 1st battalion of the 65th with enormous tattooed arms, speaks calmly even if he does not chew his words.
A Ukrainian soldier of the 65th brigade walks past a destroyed car next to trenches dug by Russian forces, on October 1, 2023 in Robotyné, in the Zaporizhzhia region © AFP – Roman PILIPEY
For him, the announcement of the capture of Robotyné had above all a media objective, because from a strategic point of view this locality, now ravaged, brought nothing. “We could have bypassed it,” he said, receiving AFP not far from the front, in the Zaporizhzhia region.
“We like big announcements, quick victories. In reality it happens differently”, explains, with dark glasses on his nose, this officer who goes by the nom de guerre of “Morpekh”, an abbreviation of “marine infantry”.
– By day, death at 100% –
According to him, his men cannot move freely in this area, which has been officially reconquered for a month and a half.
Ukrainian soldiers of the 65th brigade on the front line near the village of Robotyné, October 1, 2023 in the Zaporizhia region © AFP – Roman PILIPEY
It was only at gray dawn that Small groups of soldiers can be sent forward to launch targeted attacks against Russian positions in the thickets that dot the region.
Today, they are on the edge of the next village, Novoprokopivka, located just two or three kilometers south of Robotyné.
“Moving during the day is 100% death,” explains Morpekh, one of the eight soldiers from the 65th brigade interviewed by AFP.
For him , the area is not really Ukrainian, but “gray”. With each bombing, “there are victims, men are lost”.
If there are no more enemy soldiers in Robotyné, the area is de facto under the “firepower control” of the Russians, notes the officer. It is therefore impossible to carry out major infantry or armored operations.
a Ukrainian soldier of the 65th brigade on a road near the village of Robotyné, October 1, 2023 in the Zaporizhzhia region © AFP – Roman PILIPEY
The Ukrainian army has an ambitious objective on this southern front: to cut Russian logistical lines and the continuity of the occupied territories by reaching, in the best case scenario, the Sea of Azov. Such a victory could force the Russian army to retreat.
Therefore, for the Kremlin, the fact that Ukraine has only been able to retake a few dozen square kilometers since the start of its counterattack -offensive, in June, is proof that this vast operation is a failure.
South of Robotyné, the first large town of Tokmak is about thirty kilometers away. The coast is located 70 km further.
Between the two, on the ground, was erected a vast network of fortifications built by the Russians, made up of underground shelters, trenches, anti-tank traps and minefields. The Ukrainians can only advance from one embankment to another, and from one thicket to another, under enemy fire.
This set is nicknamed “Surovikin line”, because it was built at the end of 2022 and during 2023, when the now disgraced General Sergei Surovikin was leading operations in Ukraine.
A Ukrainian soldier of the 65th brigade in a trench dug by Russian troops, near the village of Robotyné, October 1, 2023 in the Zaporizhia region © AFP – Roman PILIPEY
If the Ukrainian army broke through the first defensive curtains this summer, most of the Russian defenses are still ahead of it.
And autumn, with its rain and mud, then winter with snow and ice, which are fast approaching, should make the task even more complicated.
The danger from the sky is just as great: aerial bombs, shells and swarms of explosive drones fall on Ukrainian soldiers who are trying to advance or “clean” an enemy trench.
Léonid, a 44-year-old grenade launcher expert, says that on the front, they can only move between two deluges of fire, for “3 to 5 minutes.”
“He doesn't there is no close combat, it is above all 120 and 82mm mortars, 152mm artillery, kamikaze (drones) and KABs” guided bombs of 500 to 1,500 kilos dropped by the aviation, says this soldier responding to the pseudonym “Miron”.
” Poltava” (l), deputy chief of the 1st battalion of the 65th brigade, in the trenches near Robotyné, October 1, 2023 in the Zaporizhia region, Ukraine © AFP – Roman PILIPEY
“Poltava”, deputy chief of the 1st battalion of the 65th brigade, says that the Russian army “saves nothing, neither ammunition nor aerial bombs”. As a result, Ukrainian advances can only be slow and losses heavy.
“We are moving forward little by little, thicket by thicket, not as quickly as we wanted (…) it’s very hard, and we are losing a lot of our guys,” he said.
The losses, according to the soldiers interviewed by AFP, are significant, while the Ukrainian authorities, like the Russians, provide no assessment.
Soldiers of the 65th claim that in terms of artillery, Russia fires ten shells when they can send “one or two”. The same goes for drones.
“We are fighting against an enemy, a massive country, they have more men, they have more equipment,” notes Olexandr, a 27-year-old soldier who goes by the alias “Bouria”, the “storm” .
– Few reserves –
“When they bomb an undergrowth, we take shelter, no matter where, we put our heads to the ground (.. .) When it's over we know that we can move and if it's possible, we move forward,” he says.
A Ukrainian soldier of the 65th brigade passes near the trenches dug by Russian troops, on October 1, 2023 near Robotyné, in the Zaporizhzhia region © AFP – Roman PILIPEY
In this context, Ukraine has been irritating Westerners for weeks who criticize it for the slowness of its progress, and those who believe the time has come for Washington and the EU to reduce their military aid.
According to Kiev, if the troops are suffering, it is because the assistance is not sufficient, the West in particular dragging too long to deliver the F-16 planes which would make it possible to challenge Russia for its air supremacy, to devastate the Surovikin line and to cover the infantry advances.
While waiting for possible air cover, the Ukrainian military can only eat away at ground.
“The price is the lives of our guys,” notes Morpekh, “and we have very few (reserves) of men.”
Mykola, alias “Doc”, chief combat nurse, confirms that “the cost is very high”, recounting evacuations of wounded under fire.
“War is blood, sweat, dirt, stench. You don't see the smell on screen, it stays out of the camera's field of vision,” says this 47-year-old man who worked in a Fintech before the Russian invasion.
A Ukrainian soldier from the 65th brigade takes off a drone near the village of Robotyné, October 1, 2023 in the Zaporizhia region © AFP – Roman PILIPEY
Poltava says the hardest part is talking to the relatives of comrades fallen in combat and whose bodies could not be recovered.
“They call me all the time asking when we can take the bodies out, but there they are in such a place that I can't send anyone. It's very dangerous, and we could lose even more people,” explains -he.
– “We know why” –
However, the men of the 65th brigade do not think for a second of giving up. For them, the war can only end one way: the defeat of Russia and the reconquest of the occupied Ukrainian lands.
“Poltava” (l), deputy chief of the 1st battalion of the 65th brigade, in a trench dug by Russian troops, near Robotyné, on October 1, 2023 in the Zaporizhia region, Ukraine © AFP – Roman PILIPEY
“We knew very well where we were going, we know why we were going there”, insists “Doc”.
Mikhaïl, known as “Kapa”, is 28 years old. Before the Southern Front, this unit leader fought in the Kharkiv region in the northeast and participated in the horrific Battle of Bakhmut in Donbass.
He was also among the first to enter Robotyne.
For him, the solidity of the Russian fortifications shows that Moscow had decided, after its debacles in the fall of 2022 in the northeast and in the south, to consolidate its positions and no longer attempt to go forward.
“They understood that they would not be able to take more and hold on, so they entrenched themselves here, permanently”, he analyzes.
Result, since November 2022 and its defeat at Kherson, the Russian army has no longer given up much ground, and it has therefore been a year since the front has barely moved.
Nothing to dampen the motivation of Kapa and his comrades, specially selected to attack the Russians on their Sourovikine line.
“The guys who arrive at our place, we know perfectly well why they are there. They are there to work, to clear the enemy, attack and not sit in a ditch,” he emphasizes.
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