Outgunned and outfought by Russians, Ukrainian volunteers want to retake the city that fell to Putin’s troops at the start of the invasion
At their base in no-man’s land outside the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, volunteers with the Kherson Brigade hone their shooting skills on a target of Vladimir Putin. Dozens of bullet holes pepper the Russian leader’s face — one they’d much rather practise on in person.
Barring that, they have another way of getting revenge — and getting their lives, loves and homes back in the process. To the east, across 80km of heavily contested territory, is their home city of Kherson, which fell to the Russians at the very start of the war.
“We defended Kherson as much as we could, but we were outgunned, so pulled back to defend Mykolaiv and the rest of Ukraine,” says one brigade member, who goes by the nom-de-guerre of “Helicopter”. “Now, we want to take it back.”
To do that, though, Helicopter and his comrades must prevail on the Southern Front — the battle for control over Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
Internationally, it attracts far less attention than the eastern Donbas region further north. Strategically, it is crucial for both sides.
Kherson is the only major city the Russians control on the west side of Ukraine’s River Dnipro, which divides the country into east and west. It offers a launch point from which to capture Mykolaiv — where an assault in February failed — and to take Odesa, Ukraine’s main commercial port. That would leave the country landlocked, and facing economic ruin.
For the Ukrainians, capturing Kherson means liberating an estimated 150,000 citizens currently living there under Russian occupation. But for them, too, the objectives would not stop there. Kherson would be a potential launch point into Crimea, retaking the peninsula that Mr Putin annexed back in 2014.
Meanwhile, the armies are slugging it out in the turf between Mykolaiv and Kherson, a flat farming plain that has become a Flanders on the steppe.
Artillery battles rage for control of tiny, deserted hamlets — some now flattened, with corpses in the streets. Soldiers crawl through fields on perilous recon missions, hoping to avoid booby-trapped hedgerows and enemy drones. The Black Sea summer heat is already stifling. And with neither side making a breakthrough yet, bases like the Kherson Brigade’s already have a semi-permanent look. Operating from a disused farmhouse, they have a kitchen stacked with cabbages and onions, and old sofas under a veranda where tea is served. Helicopter’s comrade Eduard Leonov, who plays in a folk band, even has his guitar.
“We are shelling the Russian positions and trying to clear the sections they occupy, but it’s a slow process,” Helicopter said, as artillery sounded in the distance. “They’re well-dug in their trenches, and they’ve planted a lot of landmines.”
A snapshot of the battle’s slow grind is the current ferocious scrap for Davydiv Brid, a hamlet of 1,200 people next to a shallow river crossing on the border between Mykolaiv and Kherson districts. In a push last month, Ukrainian forces in Soviet T-64 tanks and army vehicles fought their way towards it, freeing 20 other settlements in the process. But Davydiv Brid itself still remains in Russian hands, according to Roman Kostenko, a local MP who is also a Ukrainian paratrooper.
“We’ve done well to get even near to Davydiv Brid,” said Mr Kostenko, whose house in a neighbouring village was looted by the invaders. “But it’s on a hill, which makes it easy for the Russians to defend.”
Taking Davydiv Brid would bring Ukrainian forces within striking distance of the T2205, a highway the Russian garrison in Kherson relies on for resupply from the east. As with Donbas, though, commanders here say they will only succeed if they get far more Western weapons.
“Please tell this to the people of Britain,” Mr Kostenko pleaded. “For every few artillery systems we have, the Russians have hundreds.”
The spearhead force attacking Davydiv Brid is also better equipped than most. Volunteer outfits like the Kherson Brigade have mainly just rifles, and rely partly on “roadkill” weapons picked up from retreating Russian forces. At their HQ, a half-dismembered anti-tank mine sits in a hallway, looking at first glance like an extremely hazardous doorstop. “We are trying to get it fixed so we can use it,” said Mr Leonov, who is also trying to repair a Russian bazooka that sits next to his guitar. “We have to take anything we can get.”
Mr Leonov and Helicopter have experience in combat, having fought in Donbas in 2014. Many other soldiers are newly enlisted civilians, for whom old-school trench warfare can be as demoralising as it is terrifying.
“The village near our base can get shelled 350 times in a day, and we have no response,” one volunteer said.
“People are asking themselves, ‘Why am I here waiting to die?’ But our commander does at least talk to us. So people trust him, and fight. We aren’t trained warriors. But we do our job with passion, even though it’s very heavy going — the brigade we replaced lost half its men.”
Most days, he added, were spent on “spotting” missions. But the Russians will deploy an entire artillery battery to take them out if detected. “They have so many missiles, they use them just like bullets,” he said.
The talk now is of the Ukrainian counter-offensive intensifying next month, heralding an all-out push to retake Kherson. While Kyiv’s forces will be reluctant to shell their own city from outside, they are hopeful of a popular uprising from within Kherson, where partisans have recently started insurgent attacks. Or the Kremlin could launch a major push.
One British volunteer said: “If we don’t do a push, the Russians will — their tanks could roll right now across these fields if they wanted to. If they get Mykolaiv and Odesa ports, they can choke Ukraine into submission. “
What happens here is influenced by the battle further north in Donbas. Some speculate the reason Ukraine has fought so hard for towns in Donbas is to tie Mr Putin’s troops there while they retake Kherson. Apart from Mariupol — which is largely destroyed — Kherson is the only major Ukrainian city under Russian rule. A liberation would turbo-charge morale.
Particularly happy will be men like Helicopter. Some Ukrainians believe Kherson fell in the first place because its people were pro-Russian — a point he is keen to prove them wrong on.
“We are not here by government order, we are volunteers, Ukrainian patriots,” he said. “Nor are we child-eating maniacs like Putin thinks we are. We’re just ordinary, peaceful people who elect our own leaders and live our own lives — without anyone else interfering.”
Early yesterday powerful explosions rocked the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, a day after authorities said at least 21 people were killed when Russian missiles struck an apartment building near the Black Sea port of Odesa.
On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy denounced the strikes as “conscious, deliberately targeted Russian terror and not some sort of error or a coincidental missile strike.”
© Telegraph Media Group 2022 Ltd
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