Dug In on Front Lines, Ukrainians Aim to Repel Russian Onslaught

ZAPORIZKA REGION, Ukraine — The day after the conflict started, after their unit was practically worn out in a missile strike, Ukrainian Sgt. Oleksandr Gorvat introduced his girlfriend and commanding officer, First Lt. Olena Petyak, a hoop he had twisted collectively from wire and requested for her hand in marriage.

“Formally we’re not speculated to serve collectively, however we’re not formally married,” he defined on Friday, amid the whoosh of Grad rockets being fired at close by Russian positions. “That’s for after the conflict. As quickly as we win.”

Along with their unit, the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, the couple, each 25, have been dug right into a frontline place within the Zaporizka area of south-central Ukraine, east of the Dnipro River and solely about two miles from the place Russian forces have been making an attempt to overrun extra territory.

Fierce preventing was underway on Friday throughout a band of southeastern Ukraine, in and round main cities like Polohy, Orikhiv and Vasylivka, which is on the banks of the Dnipro. It fell to the troops of the 128th to forestall Russian forces from pushing farther north towards the necessary industrial metropolis of Zaporizhzhia, simply 20 miles north of Vasylivka on the river.

The Kremlin has achieved one among its strategic objectives, seizing a strip of land alongside the Azov Sea, linking the Donbas area within the east, now the main focus of the conflict, with Crimea, the peninsula President Vladimir V. Putin invaded and annexed in 2014. The one important pocket of resistance remaining is a sprawling metal mill complicated within the ruined port metropolis of Mariupol, the place Ukrainian fighters and civilians are in underground bunkers, beneath heavy bombardment.

However the Russians have been making an attempt this week to develop that ribbon of territory, pushing north from the coast towards Zaporizhzhia. Different Russian forces have been pushing west via Donbas, the place on Friday a few of the heaviest fight was being waged across the metropolis of Sievierodonetsk and the city of Popasna. Moscow’s military was additionally advancing southward from the town of Izium. Altogether, the entrance line is about 300 miles lengthy.

Moscow’s separatist proxies in Donbas, backed by Russian tools and troops, have held a part of the area since 2014, and Russia has mentioned that it goals to develop its territory there. How far Mr. Putin will go is unclear, however the Kremlin seems intent on trapping a lot of the Ukrainian army in a pincer and destroying it.

Lieutenant Petyak, who’s second accountable for the brigade, mentioned the purpose within the Zaporizhzhia area — the southwestern a part of that entrance line — was not simply to carry the Russians at a standstill however to push them again.

“The enemy is consistently firing with artillery, tanks, Grads, and aviation in our path,” she mentioned. “They need to knock out this part, however they gained’t be capable of do it as a result of we’re right here. Quite the opposite they will have to surrender their positions as a result of I’m sure that someday quickly we’ll push ahead and take the rest of the land that they’ve been capable of quickly occupy.”

That will show a problem, even for the Ukrainian forces, which have shocked army analysts {and professional} troopers with their fierce and efficient protection because the begin of the conflict.

After Mr. Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces primarily based within the Crimean Peninsula, a few of the nation’s most expert and well-equipped, lunged north, gobbling up territory in southern Ukraine each within the path of Kherson, west of the Dnipro, and east towards Mariupol.

Early within the morning of Feb. 24, the troopers of the 128th brigade realized the conflict had begun when a Russian cruise missile hit their base, simply lacking the barracks the place they slept. The troops have been capable of escape into the close by woods.

It was the subsequent day, as they scrambled to regroup and be a part of the fight in opposition to the invading Russians that Sergeant Gorvat proposed.

At first the brigade was deployed within the neighborhood of Melitopol, a southern metropolis about halfway between Crimea and Zaporizhzhia. However they’ve been pushed again practically 70 miles to the north. They’re now entrenched in a patch of woods wedged between wheat fields which can be vibrant inexperienced with spring development.

Ukrainians who dwell within the coastal territory that Russia has seized proceed to surge north in search of refuge in Ukrainian-held lands. Convoys of automobiles and buses, laden with suitcases, arrive often on the parking zone of a house items retailer in Zaporizhzhia. Many arrive with unsettling tales of the Russian occupation.

“It’s whole lawlessness,” mentioned Natalya Gorbova, who arrived in Zaporizhzhia on Thursday together with her 17-year outdated son, Egor. That they had fled Melitopol, whose mayor was kidnapped by Russian forces and dragged from his workplace with a bag over his head. He was solely launched after Ukraine agreed to a prisoner swap.

“For those who keep dwelling, it’s advantageous,” Ms. Gorbova mentioned, “however there are these guys strolling round with weapons who do no matter they need.”

In Ukrainian territory, she mentioned, “it’s simpler to breathe.”

Ukraine’s entrance line positions buzz with surveillance drones that Russian forces use to focus on their artillery. At one level on Friday, Capt. Vitaliy Nevinsky, the commander of the 128th, dispersed a bunch of troopers chatting shut collectively round a campfire, lest a drone direct an artillery strike into the center of their gathering.

The primary weeks of the conflict have been a baptism by fireplace for the 128th. At one level, Captain Nevinsky defined, his forces have been surrounded and needed to punch their means via the Russian strains. Captain Nevinsky, 25, mentioned he was using on a tank, masking the unit’s escape when it was hit by a shell. He suffered shrapnel wounds and a concussion, however returned to the entrance strains two weeks later.

His brigade is best outfitted now, he mentioned, with antitank missiles offered by the People and the British, in addition to Stinger antiaircraft missiles and different superior weapons programs. These have helped gradual the Russian forces down, he mentioned. This week, he mentioned, the brigade has taken out two Russian T-72 tanks that strayed too near their positions.

“We’re on our personal land,” he mentioned. “We’re defending ourselves and knocking out this horde, this invasion of our territory.”

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