On The Donetsk Front, Ukraine's Counteroffensive Follows The Kherson Playbook
For many observers, Ukraine's counteroffensive seems to be progressing too slowly, with losses leading some critics to call it a "suicide mission." Yet the view from the frontline makes clear that Kyiv is pursuing a strategy that has already proven successful.
VREMIVKA — Roofs of houses are torn off, side walls collapsed. Window frames dangle in the wind, refrigerators, tables and chairs lie scattered. Wrecked cars, pieces of metal, chunks of stone, splintered branches and trees are everywhere on the streets. The destruction is unspeakable.
None of these houses, with their vegetable gardens and fruit trees, so typical of rural Ukraine, are even remotely habitable. The road runs through the heart of the chaos, over two pontoon bridges that cross the Mokri Jaly River, and then continues along a dirt road filled with white gravel. This is the route the Ukrainian army paved to stab the Russian occupation forces in the back at Vremivka.
This village on the border of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts had been divided in two since last year. The front line between Russian and Ukrainian troops ran right through the village, which was home to just 1,300 people.
Vremivka has been liberated - as have six other villages near the small town of Velyka Novosilka. Ukrainian forces recaptured these villages between June 10 and 12. The area, which covers a total of 139 square kilometers, is so far the largest territory that Kyiv has been able to free as part of its current counteroffensive.
"Nowhere else have so many villages been captured," says Ivan, a press officer with the 35th Marine Brigade, which was instrumental in the recapture. Like most Ukrainian soldiers on combat duty, he asks to keep his last name private.
Success in the southern region of Velyka Novosilka was important for Ukraine. Shortly before, pictures of destroyed German Leopard 2 tanks and American Bradleys in Orichiw, 150 kilometers to the west, spread around the world.
In the light of these images, military experts talked about "tactical misconduct" and even of a "suicide mission" by Ukraine's army. Some had already concluded that the offensive's first phase "failed," including military expert Markus Reisner, commander of the Austrian Armed Forces Guard, a ceremonial batallion.
But casualties are part of every war, and Kyiv has already accepted them before in favor of strategic maneuvers. The last time was last year during the successful counterattack in Kherson. Even then, the hospitals were full of severely wounded soldiers who described horrors at the front. In the cemeteries, dozens of new graves were dug every day.
At that time, some Ukrainians questioned the purpose of the offensive, which led to so many dead and injured. "Is it really worth this cost?" many media asked with doubts. Four months later, Kherson was liberated, to cheers from the entire nation.
This approach could now be repeated in other parts of the country — for Ukraine's long-awaited counteroffensive, as such, does not seem to have really begun yet.
The first phase is a kind of tactical foreplay. In chess, this could be described as the opening. Ukraine is still in the discovery phase, and not in full attack mode. This becomes clear when you ask soldiers at the front: "Our brigade has been ordered to attack and capture certain targets," Ivan says. "The Russians sent new troops to reinforce them, and our task was finished."
This means that while the fighting continues, the 35th Brigade is not expected to advance with all its forces. The lines remain stable, and the threat potential of a new Ukrainian offensive in this section is maintained.
It becomes clear: the attack South of Velyka Novosilka was only a tactical maneuver, aimed to test the Russian reaction and to push them to commit troops. The other Ukrainian advances along the front line probably also had a similar goal, especially since they are often carried out only in battalion and brigade strength.
Of course, the Russian General Staff is aware of this, and is "constantly moving units in a variety of directions," Valeriy Shershen, spokesman for the Southern Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces explained last week. "The enemy does not know or suspect where a major Ukrainian breakthrough is taking place."
It seems that Kyiv and Moscow are playing a cat-and-mouse game. Ukraine, which is attacking on at least four fronts, has the momentum. Russia's only option is to react to this by constantly reinforcing troops where Ukrainians attack. The only question is how long the Russian troops can keep this up. Weeks, or maybe even months?
Ukrainian soldiers with the 24th brigade prepare to move to a frontline position in Donetsk
A fraction of units activated
"We are still in the testing phase," Ivan says. He adds that the Ukrainians are still searching for the Russians' weak points, "and this may take weeks or maybe months. Nobody knows." Ivan stresses that most of the Ukrainian Army's forces are not even deployed yet, nor is it known when and where they will strike.
In fact, only a fraction of the units that the Ukrainian General Staff has made available for the counteroffensive have been activated so far. They are waiting far behind the front lines in the Dnipro and Zaporizhzhya regions, somewhere in the countryside. Die WELT was able to visit one of their camps.
The soldiers' tents are hidden in the woods. Tanks and other military vehicles stand between trees under camouflage nets. Barracks are too dangerous for accommodation, due to the threat of Russian long-range missiles.
In Vremivka, there is nothing left to come back to.
"So, the big offensive won't take place tomorrow, or the day after," says the 37-year-old unit press officer, who wishes to remain anonymous, with a grin. He worked as a journalist for 10 years before the war.
Before the full attack can begin, Russian supply lines, ammunition depots and fuel depots must first be shut down. This approach is similar to last year's Kherson offensive. At that time, Ukraine shelled the logistics of the Russian army far behind the front line over a period of three months.
Back to Vremivka. Normally, in the liberated areas, you meet residents who stayed despite the war, as well as those who came back after the end of the fighting. But in Vremivka, there is nothing left to come back to.
The village is nothing but a wasteland of ruins. Moreover, Russian mortar and artillery shells still hit here regularly. The front is not far away.
On the main road, where usually only military vehicles travel, two white vans are parked, unexpectedly. They belong to the Kraken evacuation team, which rescues people from dangerous hot spots, explains the full-bearded Vitaly, who is wearing a bulletproof vest.
This time, however, he and his two employees are not evacuating residents. On behalf of a homeowner, they are tasked with picking up homemade honey, the washing machine, computers and important family documents. "You're welcome to see the owner's permission. We are not looters," says the 34-year-old.
The successful work of his evacuation team has spread. "We receive calls for help from the population every day," Vitaly reports. During the course of the war, he says, they've been everywhere: "In Kharkiv, Lysychansk, Syeverodonetsk and most recently in Bakhmut."
He has already faced death a few times, he says in passing, as if this were the most normal thing in the world. In Bakhmut, which the Russian Wagner mercenaries captured in March, Vitaly was wounded for the fourth time. He shows the scars on his calf. "Shrapnel," he says just before entering the house to run down the owner's list.
Raising the Ukrainian flag after the liberation of Kherson in November
Presidential Office Of Ukraine/dpa via ZUMA
Smell of death
The nearest villages on the way to the front are Neskuchne and Storozheve. The thunder of guns is a constant company. Especially dominant is the noise of Grad rockets, fired from Ukrainian batteries.
He can't be the only dead person.
The streets are deserted. Not even dogs and cats, usually omnipresent in Ukraine, are roaming around. Only a yellow car of Ukrainian scouts is on the way. They are looking for suitable accommodation for soldiers and command posts.
After a few kilometers of driving through open ground, the town of Storozheve appears. Clouds of smoke cover the plain, and the sound of Russian and Ukrainian artillery roars in the distance. The body of a Russian soldier lies in the bushes by the roadside.
His face is sunken, his skin dried out, several bullet holes in his body. He can't be the only dead person; the air has the bittersweet smell of corpses.
Suddenly, the typical whistling of a mortar shell sounds as it approaches. Press officer Ivan squats down and covers his ears with his fingers. Not far away, the grenade hits the ground with a crash.
Ivan has had enough. He no longer wants to go to Makarivka, the village directly on the front line. "Too dangerous," he says and runs toward the car waiting under trees a few hundred meters away.
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