The Ukrainian army is preparing its counteroffensive, already beginning to hit Russians hard with U.S. Himars missiles. But experts warn about keeping the expectations too high, because Russia has key advantages. A German reporter sees how Ukrainians are preparing and how far they are willing to go to regain their lost territory.
MALA TOKMACHKA — Dmitry Litvinenko believes in God, Mercedes engines and in chasing the Russians out of his country. "Orcs" is what he and his comrades call the enemy, like the evil creatures from The Lord of the Rings.
"It's only three kilometers from here to the orcs," says the 23-year-old, stretching out his arm towards the fields in front of him.
Litvinenko stands in front of the bombed-out cultural center in Mala Tokmatchka, a small town near the frontline in southeastern Ukraine. The sun beats down on the pitted asphalt, an old man on his bike stops in front of the soldier.
"No electricity, no water, no medicine," he says, complaining that the situation here is a catastrophe. "And every day the Russian bombs!"
"Everything will be fine," says Litvinenko. Maybe not immediately, but soon, they will take back their territories. "Vse bude Ukraina." Everything will be Ukraine again.
Himars and hope
"Vse bude Ukraina" was previously considered a distant dream, captured on billboards across the country.
Putin's troops have been advancing slowly in eastern Ukraine for weeks. Now, however, after five months of Russia's war of aggression, Ukraine holds out the prospect of a major counteroffensive.
Such an attack would likely affect areas in the south or southeast. In an interview with the British newspaper The Times, Defense Minister Oleksii Resnikov even said his country could muster a million troops.
Six letters in particular symbolize the new hope of the Ukrainians: Himars, short for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. They are U.S. multiple rocket launchers capable of destroying targets deep in Russian-occupied territory. The Ukrainians have already used them to blow up several Russian arms and ammunition depots.
Last week, the U.S. announced the delivery of four more models. There are currently Ukrainian songs praising Himars as a new "wonder weapon" for an offensive against Russia.
But leading German military experts are putting the brakes on expectations.
Locally, Ukrainians could certainly be successful, Sönke Neitzel, a professor of military history at the University of Potsdam, told Die Welt. "In my opinion, however, all the prerequisites for a large-scale counter-offensive are missing."
Professor Carlo Masala of the Bundeswehr University in Munich also expressed doubts. For an offensive on the entire front, he said, both the personnel and the equipment are lacking. "Ukraine can only be concerned with conducting pinpoint counteroffensives in the south." Pinpoints in an attempt to "thin out the massive concentration of Russian troops in the Donbas."
If we got 100 of these machines, it would be a different war.
In the past few months, soldier Litvinenko has experienced how difficult it is to recapture areas in the southeast of the country. The situation in the Orikhiv region, which also includes Mala Tokmachka, looks like this: the Russians have become lazy and are no longer advancing themselves. But the enemy artillery is working continuously.
"As soon as our soldiers advance, we are shelled with artillery, mortars, howitzers and so on. They don't let us approach."
Russia continues to be far superior in firepower, despite Ukraine receiving arms supplies from the West.
They are tired of sitting in their trenches, Litvinenko says. But to advance, they would need much more artillery of their own — and more systems like Himars: "If we got 100 of these machines, it would be a different war."
Waiters and teachers join the fight
So far in this war of attrition, Russia has suffered heavy losses — presumably tens of thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded — but has repeatedly sent new forces to the front.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank, the Russian army has been recruiting more volunteer battalions since June. Men between 18 and 60 could sign up without prior military experience. After only 30 days of training, they would then be sent to Ukraine. Pay: about $3,000 per month.
In part because of Russia's superior manpower, Ukrainian Defense Minister Resnikov's statements caused a stir. One million soldiers, he claimed, could be provided by his country in total.
"We have about 700,000 troops, and if you include the National Guard, the police and border patrol, we're about a million people," he said. These figures cannot be verified in detail, but there are several factors to consider.
The actual Ukrainian army is supported in war by the territorial armed forces. These are volunteers who take on military tasks within their regions. However, many of them have little or no previous experience as soldiers.
In a unit in Zaporizhzhya, which Die Welt visited recently, waiters, electricians, and teachers are fighting. One of them is Oleksandr Trofymenko, 40, who was working in Denmark until Putin's invasion.
"It won't do much good to put a million people on the front lines because you have to train them," says professor Masala. There are already U.S. Afghan veterans in Ukraine, as well as British military advisers, who are helping to train the soldiers.
In addition, two Ukrainian battalions are currently being trained in Great Britain. But this training takes time — and only part of the armed forces have so far been given the opportunity to do so. In addition, there is a lack of material and equipment to properly equip an army of one million.
U.S. Army National Guard soldiers launching rockets during a live-fire training exercise at Camp Ripley, Minnesota
The drone factor
The Ukrainians are very resourceful: in Zaporizhzhya, in the backyard of a shielded factory, they have been converting everything into war production for months.
Tatiana Drobotia helps us and shows us around the site. There, some men are welding the metal for protective vests, made from old car parts. Next door, they convert worn-out minivans into mobile showers for the front line.
On a Thursday morning at a secret Ukrainian army base in the Zaporizhzhya region, a black flying object, smaller than half a meter, rises vertically from the ground into the air and disappears from view, buzzing in the sky. Dennis Pesko stares at the screen of his device and steers the drone over the long meadows of the site.
Russia has recently strengthened its own defense lines.
"Drones help us on the battlefield to identify Russian positions and save the lives of our soldiers," says the 35-year-old. Pesko is the chief instructor at the drone school here in the southeast. He teaches soldiers how to operate the devices, each of which costs thousands of euros and some of which can be armed.
Drones are also expected to help Ukraine push back Russians from occupied territories. Western experts and people in Ukrainian army circles believe that a major attack is most likely to take place around the Russian-occupied city of Kherson or slightly further southeast.
Russia has recently strengthened its own defense lines in these areas. At the same time, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced last week that his country's war aims had changed. He said it was no longer just about capturing eastern Ukraine, but also the south and southeast. He explicitly mentioned Kherson and Zaporizhzhya.
Burned out, Sea dreams
Ukraine lacks the material to seize territory on a large scale, Masala said. "The Ukrainian army has equipment to keep the Russians at a distance, to wear them down and destroy things far behind Russian lines."
The German Panzerhaubitze 2000, however, would help destroy Russian artillery. But the Ukrainian artillery is slowly running out of ammunition, he said.
Military historian Neitzel points out that Ukraine has so far primarily defended itself. "Attacking on a large scale is much more difficult, and according to all the information I have, the Ukrainian armed forces not only lack the weapons such as modern tanks, more artillery and ammunition, more fighter planes, but also the tactical skills," he said.
Soldier Litvinenko says that although he is still physically fit, he mentally feels "just burned out" after months in the war.
Nevertheless, he was sure that they would recapture every piece of their land. He couldn't wait to go back to Berdyansk, which is currently under Russian occupation, "to swim in our sea".
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