A village retaken, and a confidence boost for Ukraine’s troops
By Carlotta Gall
A sheep dog, padding down the streets on his own, was the only sign of life in this destroyed village. Flames licked the rafters of the school, and smoke poured out of a burning house several streets away after Russian artillery strikes earlier in the day.
Amid the smoke and rubble, Pavlivka might seem like a dubious prize. But for the Ukrainian troops defending it last week, after recapturing it from Russian forces three weeks ago, it counted as a rare success when much of Ukraine, and the rest of the world, was transfixed by the fall of the last two cities in eastern Luhansk province to overwhelming Russian firepower.
In this small corner of the adjacent Donetsk province, a self-assured mechanized brigade was bucking the trend.
“I told you when I next saw you we would have liberated somewhere,” the unit’s commander said triumphantly. “Well, we have.” Like most serving officers in the Ukrainian army, the commander, a 30-year-old major who heads an anti-tank unit, asked to be identified by only his code name, Kryha, which means ice.
Pavlivka, just a few miles from the nearest Russian positions, remains a precarious foothold for the Ukrainians. The Russians have bombarded the village so heavily since losing it that only a small group of Ukrainian soldiers were hunkered down at the entrance. The few civilians still living there were taking cover, nowhere to be seen.
Villages, towns and cities across eastern and southern Ukraine have suffered similar destruction as the Russian forces have made their slow, grinding advance over the past five months, pummeling Ukrainian troops with relentless artillery strikes and killing tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians.
Yet the retaking of Pavlivka was a welcome turnaround for Ukrainian troops in the region, after months of being on the back foot. It also gave them a close-up view of the enemy, and what they saw gave them confidence.
“People needed to believe in themselves, see the enemy, see them captured, killed, see that they are also easily hit,” Senior Lt. Andriy Mikheichenko, deputy commander of an anti-tank missile unit, said. “Moreover, we have a lot of new recruits. These people also needed to feel success.”
Ukraine’s 53rd Brigade seized the village June 21, he said. Through the night, they negotiated the surrender of 10 Russian prisoners, including the commanding officer stationed in the village.
Kryha, who led the operation, said his troops caught the Russians off guard both with the timing and the direction of the attack.
“This was a complete surprise for them,” he said. “We surrounded them so that they could not go forward or back. They were blocked. We also blocked reinforcements who could come to their aid.”
Sitting in an underground operations room at his base, its walls lined with maps and video feeds of the surrounding countryside, he said the Ukrainians had planned their assault for a month before making their move, to ensure minimal casualties. The preparation paid off, and they secured the village in 48 hours, with only one soldier killed and three wounded, he said.
The enemy forces consisted of about 150 men, half of them Russian marines and the other half pro-Russian forces drawn from the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, but he said they had been complacent and not very smart.
On a visit to Pavlivka Sunday, the commander walked through the wreckage of three Russian armored vehicles by the central square. One vehicle was reduced to a mangled jumble of metal, its turret blown off with such force that it lay 100 yards away down the street.
The central buildings were badly damaged and gutted by fire. “You see what this war is doing?” Kryha said.
Farther along the street, the Russians had used a residential compound as their headquarters. An abandoned SUV marked with the Russian code sign Z stood in the courtyard amid the debris from the battle. It was here that the Russian commander was caught. “He came out and immediately raised his hands,” Kryha said.
There were brief street battles, but the Russians put up little fight. “They realized that it no longer made sense,” Kryha said. “They could not go on.”
The Ukrainians had not planned to get bogged down with taking prisoners, but in the end they took 10 of the Russians. The Russian commander requested to be allowed to retreat without weapons back to his side, but the Ukrainians did not accept that, Kryha said.
His men showed less concern for the Ukrainians fighting alongside the Russians. Dozens of them were killed in the battle, he said, and the rest escaped.
The enemy captives were all members of a marine infantry brigade from the Russian naval base at Simferopol in Crimea, said Mikheichenko, who saw the prisoners and talked to them.
“They were well-spoken, educated and well equipped,” he said. “But they were all tired and lacked motivation.”
They had been fighting since February, he said, first in Kherson, a city that Russian forces captured early in the war. Then the unit was thrown into the battle for the port city of Mariupol and fought a weekslong campaign against Ukrainian troops for control of the Azovstal steel plant. Subsequently, without a break, the marines were sent to frontline positions at Pavlivka.
Among some of the possessions, uniforms and weapons captured by the Ukrainians was a diary belonging to one of the Russians killed in the battle. A sergeant from the city of Kemerovo in Siberia, he had written a loving farewell letter to his wife. “Maybe they felt something was coming,” Mikheichenko said.