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Ukrainian marines on ‘suicide mission’ in crossing the Dnieper river

Kherson, Ukraine: There was a faint tremor in the marine’s voice as he recounted the murderous fighting on the east bank of the Dnieper River, where he was wounded recently.

“We were sitting in the water at night and we were shelled by everything,” the marine, Maksym, said. “My comrades were dying in front of my eyes.”

For two months, Ukraine’s Marine Corps has been spearheading an assault across the Dnieper River in the southern region of Kherson to recapture territory from Russian troops. The operation is Ukraine’s latest attempt in its flagging counteroffensive to breach Russian defenses in the south and turn the tide of the war.

Soldiers and marines who have taken part in the river crossings described the offensive as brutalizing and futile, as waves of Ukrainian troops have been struck down on the river banks or in the water, even before they reach the other side.

Conditions are so difficult, a half-dozen men involved in the fighting said in interviews, that in most places, there is nowhere to dig in. The first approaches tend to be marshy islands threaded with rivulets or meadows that have become a quagmire of mud and bomb craters filled with water.

The soldiers and marines gave only their first names or asked for anonymity for security reasons, and commanders declined almost all media requests to visit military units in the Kherson region.

Several soldiers and marines spoke to journalists out of concern about the high casualties and what they said were overly optimistic accounts from officials about the progress of the offensive.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said that it was not immediately possible to comment on the soldiers’ accusations but that it would provide a response in due course.

Some of the heaviest fighting has been in the village of Krynky, on the east bank 20 miles upriver from Kherson city, where Ukrainian troops seized a narrow strip of fishermen’s houses — the only place where they managed to establish a toehold.

But footage of the area, livestreamed from a drone and seen by The New York Times, verified soldiers’ accounts of heavy Russian airstrikes that have destroyed the houses and turned the river bank into a mass of mud and splintered trees.

Fresh troops arriving on the east bank have to step on soldiers’ bodies that lie tangled in the churned mud, said Oleksiy, an experienced soldier who fought in Krynky in October and has since crossed multiple times to help evacuate the wounded.

Some of the dead marines have been lying there for as long as two months, as units have been unable to retrieve the bodies because of the intense shelling, said Volodymyr, a deputy company commander who was attending the funeral of one of his men, identified only as Denys, last week.

“The left bank is very difficult,” Volodymyr said. “Those who do it are the real heroes, men with great will power.”

With Ukraine’s counteroffensive bogged down and the United States and even the European Union showing signs of cutting back aid, the cross-river offensive has been keenly watched for signs that Ukraine can regain momentum against Russian forces. The hope is that they can create a breakthrough deep enough to threaten Russia’s supply routes and its hold in the south. The Marine Corps, rebuilt to full strength this year with several newly formed brigades, was assigned the task.

Since the war’s outset, Ukrainian officials have sought to maintain a positive narrative in an effort to maintain morale at home and support abroad. Casualty numbers are not published, nor are details of setbacks suffered by Ukrainian troops.

In the case of the Dnieper, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and other officials have suggested recently that the marines have gained a foothold on the eastern bank. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a statement last month claiming they had established several strongholds.

But marines and soldiers who have been there say these accounts overstate the case.

“There are no positions. There is no such thing as an observation post or position,” Oleksiy said. “It is impossible to gain a foothold there. It’s impossible to move equipment there.”

“It’s not even a fight for survival,” he added. “It’s a suicide mission.”

Oleksiy said the Ukrainian commanders’ poor preparation and logistics had decimated his battalion. Wounded men were being left behind because of a lack of boats, he said, and the brutal conditions were degrading morale and soldiers’ support for each other.

“People who end up there are not prepared psychologically,” he said. “They don’t even understand where they are going. They are not told by the command that sends them there.”

Oleksiy agreed to let the Times publish his account out of frustration at the losses. “I did not see anything like this in Bakhmut or Soledar,” he said, referring to two of the most intense battles on the eastern front. “It’s so wasteful.”

Russian airstrikes along the river banks marked on the Ukraine Control Map, which geolocates video footage of strikes on both sides of the front, confirm his description. The map shows heavy Russian aerial bombardment of several crossing points along a 40-mile stretch of the river.

Russian troops are taking heavy losses, too, by several accounts. The map details multiple hits by Ukrainian artillery, rockets and drones on Russian troops and armor in all of the main settlements along the eastern bank. The city of Kherson has come under repeated Russian attack, but it also resounds with the constant firing of Ukrainian artillery.

“Generally, we are on hunting duty,” said Yevhen Karas, 36, deputy commander of the 14th Separate Regiment, who was visiting one of his units operating drones against Russian targets across the river. He asked for the location not be revealed for security reasons.

“The main priority is Russian artillery and to defend our operations,” said Karas, whose surname is also his military call sign. After two months of operations, he said, the Russian units in the area and long-range artillery had been heavily suppressed. Russian troops were generally staying under cover during the day and moved only at night as a result, he said.

Karas headed a volunteer military group, C14, from 2014, which has been described as extreme right-wing by watchdog groups. In 2016 it was integrated as a special operations force in the Ukrainian army.

The marines were suffering, Karas said, but the Ukrainian attacks had unnerved Russian commanders, who brought back an airborne unit from the Zaporizhzhia front to bolster the defense.

“They are very scared that Ukraine this month, or in the spring or the summer, will increase its territory to expand and liberate” the east bank, he said, adding that he followed radio intercepts of Russian communications, among other sources of intelligence.

Even small territorial gains would give Ukraine the ability to strike Russia’s supply routes into Crimea, he said. But for now, the cross-river operation was focused not on a breakthrough but on drawing in and killing as many Russian troops as possible, he said.

Drones were proving critical in that fight, providing reconnaissance and guiding artillery, while increasingly targeting troops and equipment with explosives. A kamikaze drone was cheaper and more accurate than expensive artillery shells, which are in increasingly short supply, said the unit commander, Dzhmil, 37, giving his call sign.

“We read the papers and we know who is helping us and that everything has its price,” he said, referring to growing debates in the United States and Europe over aid to Ukraine. This week the threat of future aid cuts only deepened, as Zelenskyy’s efforts to rally support in the European Union and the U.S. Congress were rebuffed.

Ukrainian artillery and drone units were well placed along the river’s western bank, which has the advantage of having higher elevation than the eastern bank and allows access to supplies, electricity and logistics, Karas said.

Yet if Russian artillery has been suppressed in some areas, its forces have retaliated with devastating aerial bombardment, rocket strikes and a multitude of drones.

The marine Maksym, who was recovering in the hospital after being wounded in Krynky in November, said Russian airstrikes and tank, artillery and mortar fire were so intense that his platoon could not advance from the basements where the soldiers had first taken shelter.

After three men were killed in an airstrike, the platoon was ordered to evacuate. It turned into a chaotic and disastrous retreat. The soldiers came under shell fire as they made their way to the river bank in the dark, only to be told upon arrival that they would have to wait for three hours for boats to pick them up.

“It was a swamp, all in craters filled with water,” Maksym said, adding, “We had no choice but to try to dig in as deep as we could.”

“Everyone was already wounded by that time,” he said. A boat came, on a different mission, and took the most seriously wounded.

As they waited for more boats, Russian planes bombed the river bank, with three glide bombs, massive half-ton explosives that gouged great holes in the earth.

Another boat arrived and took away five more wounded men. Maksym had to wait another 40 minutes for the next boat.

“The left bank was like purgatory,” he said. “You are not dead yet, but you don’t feel alive.”

Of the 10 men in his platoon, half were dead or missing, he said. “Not a single one survived without injury,”

(Published 16 December 2023, 14:19 IST)

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