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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In southern Ukraine, signs of low Russian morale amid retreat

Ukrainian soldiers riding in a captured Russian military vehicle in Velyka Oleksandrivka last week.

By Andrew E. Kramer

As Ukrainian soldiers patrolled the streets of a small village they had retaken from the Russian army just days earlier, they found messages scrawled on walls and fences so dark and cryptic they pointed at least to poor morale, and possibly more serious mental stress.

“Give us back our people killed by witches,” one note painted on a wall said. Another message read, “Whatever we do we won’t leave this life alive.”

Nearby there were more tangible signs of a Russian army under assault: a blown-up bridge on the edge of town, and the obliterated remains of an armored personnel carrier littered the street, its chunks of metal scattered about and burned to a rich orange color.

The Russian military pulled out of Velyka Oleksandrivka, one of 29 towns and villages Ukraine has reclaimed in the southern Kherson region, last week; the few remaining older residents emerged from basements to greet Ukrainian soldiers.

Ukraine may gain more advantage in the region if the strike on the bridge to Crimea on Saturday seriously disrupts the supply line to Russian forces. Their situation was already tenuous enough that Russian commanders had requested pulling back from the city of Kherson, U.S. officials have said, but Russian President Vladimir Putin denied it.

On Monday, Russia launched a series of missile strikes across Ukraine in what appeared to be retaliatory attacks for the blast that damaged the bridge to Crimea.

The Kherson region is one of two where Ukraine is pressing counteroffensives against the Russians. The other, moving more swiftly, is in the northeast and east.

But there are distinct differences between the two theaters of war. In the north, the Russian retreat was unplanned and chaotic, as soldiers fled the Ukrainian advance, fleeing on stolen bicycles and leaving behind documents, laundry and, more chillingly, dead comrades on the side of the road. Ukraine’s forces met little resistance.

In the south, Russian soldiers are dug in more securely, and while there are signs of low morale, there are also indications of a determination to fight. In one spot in Velyka Oleksandrivka, Ukrainian troops discovered that Russian soldiers had fired anti-tank missiles, leaving a heap of about 20 empty launch tubes under a birch tree.

And when retreats became the only option, they were apparently planned and much more orderly than in the north.

“It’s a different tempo here,” said Col. Roman Kostenko, the commander of a unit fighting in the south and chair of the defense and intelligence committee in the Ukrainian parliament, or Rada. “The front did not crumble. They are retreating step-by-step into new defensive positions.”

In a pale fall sunshine of late afternoon, Kostenko drove past several of these steps on a journey into the reclaimed areas to inspect what the Russians had left behind, bumping over dirt roads. Outside one abandoned village, the summer’s harvest of grain burned in a warehouse, sending tendrils of smoke wafting over the road.

Along the route, he zigzagged past acacia trees knocked onto the road by artillery explosions — and an unexploded Grad rocket, which looked like a fence post hammered into the asphalt near the road’s centerline.

Because the road bridge was blown up, Velyka Oleksandrivka is accessible now from the west only by foot, requiring a scramble over a damaged footbridge crossing the Inhulets River.

The Russian army had used the village as a staging ground for tanks to reinforce a nearby town, Davydiv Brid. But when it fell to the Ukrainians last week, the rationale for remaining apparently disappeared.

They drove the tanks out before the Ukrainian soldiers arrived Tuesday. They fired the anti-tank missiles at Ukrainian troops across the river. The Ukrainians dismounted, fanned out and entered the village on foot. The Russian soldiers who remained retreated after a brief gunfight, soldiers in Kostenko’s unit said. While it marked a retreat, it did not convey fear and desperation like in the north, he said.

Two days later, shell casings and shards of shrapnel from the battle remained scattered around the streets, tinkling as the Ukrainian soldiers walked over them. The village was abandoned save for stray dogs and elderly residents.

Crumbling morale on the Russian side played a role in Ukraine’s advances in the south but the decisive factor was weaponry, tactics and troop numbers, Kostenko said.

The Russian government instituted a draft only last month, after it began losing ground in the counteroffensives, he noted. Ukraine called up soldiers immediately after the Russian invasion in February and these troops, some of them trained in Britain, are now entering the fight.

Ukraine now has a numerical advantage in soldiers in the fight on the western bank of the Dnieper River, where the village of Velyka Oleksandrivka is. This theater in the war is isolated from Russian supply lines by blown up bridges over the broad river.

The Ukrainian army waited on its attack until it amassed sufficient artillery systems and armored vehicles donated by Western allies to shift the odds, Kostenko said. In its initial assault on Russian lines near here in late August, for example, the Ukrainian army sent U.S.-supplied M113 tracked armored vehicles bouncing over fields to storm the village of Sukhy Stavok. The armored vehicles enabled this decisive breakthrough, he said.

But a full Russian retreat from the western bank of the Dnieper River remains unlikely, Kostenko said. The city of Kherson is the only regional capital the Russian army captured after its invasion in February and Putin has now claimed to have annexed the Kherson region and made it part of Russia.

And yet local Russian commanders in Kherson are pulling back in organized retreats to secondary lines of defense, to save their soldiers’ lives.

“They are defending it only for political reasons,” Kostenko said. “They cannot leave because Putin will lose face.”

Ukrainian officials have been trying to capitalize on poor Russian morale and promote the idea that Russian forces are pawns in the political messaging from Moscow.

Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian minister of defense, appealed on Thursday to Russian officers in a speech in Russian, saying they were deceived by their political leadership, in an apparent effort to exploit dissatisfaction in the Russian ranks and officers’ corps. He specifically addressed the officers operating in the Kherson region on the Dnieper’s western bank.

“You were promised an easy ride but sent into a trap,” Reznikov said. “Now they don’t listen to you because listening to you now means admitting mistakes.” He suggested they surrender.

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