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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

"Like Guerrilla War" — A Soldier's Dispatch From The Ukrainian Southern Front

Oleksandr Solonko, a military trooper and aerial scout, played an active role in combat operations in Bakhmut and later on the Zaporizhzhia front near Robotyne, where Ukraine is securing its breach of Russian defenses.

​File photo of a Ukrainian soldier, photographed from behind, looking at a battlefield in Ukraine

File photo of a Ukrainian soldier watching over a battlefield in Ukraine

Oleksandr Solonko

ROBOTYNE — Standing on the heights near Robotyne, one gazes upon the expansive steppe that stretches across the horizon. As far as the eye can see, the landscape is pockmarked with craters from mines, missiles, and bombs. Each new day brings another round of shelling, which makes the steppe look more and more like the lunar surface of the Moon.

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A horrible smell fills the air — a combination of debris, dead mice, trench rats, and the still un-retrieved corpses of Russian occupiers. In this putrid environment, one longs for a breath of fresh air.

The Russians had ample time to establish a heavily fortified defense in this region. What appears as mere centimeters on a map translates into kilometers of minefields, trenches, anti-tank ditches, and other obstacles intricately woven into the landscape.

We maneuver through meticulously chosen routes that the enemy recently abandoned and now monitor 24/7. The Russians are aware that we can move mostly forward and backward along these routes as the ground around them is littered with anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. It has reached the point where the Russians set explosives and traps even around their own positions, leaving only narrow paths to retreat through. We navigate trench lines, forest strips, and fields, all while the Russians relentlessly shell us.

The enemy also relentlessly tracks our units and equipment from the air, bombarding us with UAVs, swarming us with "Lancets," and steadily increasing the use of FPV drones. They have air superiority, more artillery power and more men.

The mostly flat terrain allows us to position our anti-tank missile systems and hit enemy vehicles from a distance. However, this same terrain conceals dense minefields and other deadly obstacles. Some Western analysts say we should risk more. But are we not risking enough already? Would any NATO commander or any other army in the world dare to undertake a similar operation, especially without air superiority?

image of a soldier

A soldier on the Ukrainian front

Oleksandr Solonko

A painful reminder that the war isn't won yet

Even in the West, they realize that reaching the Azov Sea will be no walk in the park. The embittered Russians, fueled by a series of failures, still possess considerable resources. They adapt swiftly, engaging in relentless informational and ideological warfare against us and the West. They construct barriers not only in southern Ukraine but also in the minds of Western voters, some of whom are unprepared to confront the Russian propaganda machine.

For some, the fact that the enemy is not to be underestimated and is indeed strong may come as a surprise. A part of our own society still mocks the Russians for deploying old T-62 and T-55 tanks to the front lines without realizing the enemy has been adapting their tactics from the first weeks of the invasion. Their decisions might not always be timely, but they are enough to buy them time and play on the fears of our Western allies.

The occupiers learn, disperse their defenses, and adopt our successful defensive strategies. A clear example of this is the increasing utilization of FPV drones. The enemy is scaling up their production, leveraging their superior resources and better access to the Chinese market.

The occupiers are adjusting. Ignoring this fact is a direct path to defeat. We have not won yet, as some have assumed — this is not just a painful reminder for our army but also for those at home.

We need to rotate our troops — not only the wounded but also those who have been at war for almost two years, not to mention those who fought before February 24, 2022.

image of a destroyed house

A house destroyed by the war in Ukraine

Oleksandr Solonko

Guerrilla war

Failing to evaluate the situation and the enemy objectively could lead us down a perilous path. There is a method to their operations, albeit imperfect. They have improved their reconnaissance, and the result of their work descends upon us daily in the form of Lancet shells and the dreaded aerial bombardments.

In order to use fewer expensive guided aviation bombs, the Russians employ old FAB bombs, equip them with simple flight control modules and basic navigation, and send planes to high altitudes so our MANPADS cannot reach them.

The bombardments are not always precise, but they are terrifying. There is almost no way to fight them from here. We have to advance in small formations to disperse our forces. But when we hear the sound of a bomb falling, we drop to the ground and pray.

Sometimes we feel like we are leading a guerrilla war.

The war is also about telling our story

We understand the monumental task before us. Overcoming the barriers in the minds of our allies is not like overcoming the fortified trenches of the occupiers, but it is just as important.

Yes, the information front has no physical frontier, but one must also know how to play in the information war. Information warfare is part of the Russian military doctrine, and we should integrate it into the workings of our own war machine.

On the map, the distance is marked by centimeters, but in practice, it is months of work.

This war is not only about combat work but also about telling our narrative, our story. I have been sharing stories about our situation and they were a revelation for many. Especially for foreigners and OSINT enthusiasts who often write about strategic things but only truly understand our situation when they see the challenges we have to overcome.

image of landmines

Landmines have been found

Oleksandr Solonko

Approaching winter

Winter is approaching. We already know that in theory, an offensive can last during rains and in freezing temperatures. Both we and the occupiers have experience of warfare in waist-deep mud and at -20 °C. So, theoretically, anything is possible. Artillery will definitely not fall silent in the weeks to come ... if there is enough ammunition. There will be fewer options for armor, but the infantry will remain active.

The dirt roads here are add a dense layer of fine dust that gets constantly churned by armored vehicles. The slightest rain turns the ground into slippery mud, under which lies sticky and viscous sludge. Every commentator should walk once on such a road in full gear and spend time in a trench. Add cold to it, and the adventure becomes even more vivid. Anyone who wants to say again that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are advancing slowly should experience this.

When I look at this steppe, I see our tremendous efforts and the insane things we achieved, and at great cost, because even the loss of one comrade is one loss too many.

Forests and hills often turn into our palisades. Around us lie scattered remnants of weapons, armor, and the corpses of fallen troops. Ahead, we can observe the enemy in Verbove and Velyki Kopani. On the map, the distance is marked by centimeters, but in practice, it is months of work.

No matter what lies ahead, no matter how the war ends, this steppe is not just a piece of land. Here, the enemy plundered our lawful order and way of life. We will never live normally until we restore this order.

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