NEAR ANDRIIVKA, Ukraine– A young man came out of the basement and was bleeding from his stomach. With his mohawk, pierced ears and tattoos, everyone calls him “Cossack” because of his resemblance to the Ukrainian daredevils of the 17th century.
Smoke rose from all sides Russian Fire volleys all around us, even though the landscape was eerily quiet. He was still grinning and excitedly telling a story as he entered the ambulance with us. “They only killed their own,” he told us later from the relative safety of a nearby hospital. “They fired on our positions and the only person they killed was one of our prisoners that we had captured a few days ago.”
Knowing it wouldn’t be long before the artillery battle resumed, we moved quickly. Normally, injured soldiers are transported from the front in an armored ambulance. But casualties were so high today that they had run out of suitable vehicles, so the medics had to risk driving to the trenches on the open road in a soft-skinned ambulance. Cossack informed us that there was no way to stop an artillery shell.
A few miles ahead of us was the town of Andriivka, against which the Cossack brigade had been fighting since the beginning Those of Ukraine Counteroffensive in June. It is about six miles south of Bakhmut, which fell to Russia wagner Fighter in May, Wagner boss soon after Yevgeny Prigozhin fell out with the Ministry of Defense and launched a failed coup before succeeding died in a mysterious plane crash.
The soldiers say the recruits who replaced Wagner in the Bakhmut sector are less well-trained, poorly equipped and more prone to running away – it’s still a very uphill battle, but the scales have tipped in their favor.
“Now we are fighting a conventional Russian army, but before Bakhmut fell, the Wagner group was in the area and they were particularly terrible at it. The group sent forward unarmed men, mostly prisoners, with ammunition for the next group, experienced mercenaries. “So they used the prisoners as a meat transport machine for ammunition and equipment,” said Mathew, a medic with Ukraine’s Third Assault Brigade. He took The Daily Beast in his ambulance to watch as they picked up soldiers like “Cossack” from the front and took them to hospitals for emergency treatment. They say this approach has been uncomfortably effective. “They were not afraid,” he says, because the consequences of the withdrawal were “certain death.”
Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analysis told The Daily Beast: “Wagner troops were better motivated, but in the Stalinist tradition, Wagner required more courage to retreat than to attack” – knowing full well that they would be shot at any sign of retreat . He points out that they also had “a significant artillery advantage from the Russian military (hence Prigozhin’s endless arguments for more ammunition), that their flanks were secured by Russian air power, and that they had a large supply of expendable fighters from the Russian prison system decreed”. the current Russian armed forces lack these. He also points out that “Wagner was not deployed or deployed as a defensive force in this war and it is therefore unclear how they would have behaved in defending around Bakhmut’s flanks.”
Since Wagner’s disappearance, Matthews said, the quality of Russian soldiers has declined and it is more likely that the men will flee or break ranks under pressure. “Those we meet don’t even pick up their dead,” he said.
The day we visited was the day they finally achieved their goal of retaking the village of Andriivka, which had taken more than two months. Its capture allows Ukraine to threaten one of the most important supply lines to Bakhmut, an important step towards encircling the Russians in the city. “We know the price; “Every kilometer is paid for with the blood of our boys,” Matthew told us. They had smashed the remaining Russian positions in the village with artillery before infantry units moved in to eliminate the last pockets of resistance. Before the war, different in his life, Matthew was an interior designer. Constantly concerned about the safety of our team and never comfortable with a weapon in his hand, he is not a born soldier. “We need you to stay safe here – the world needs you to show what.” “That’s what damn Russians are doing on Ukrainian soil.”
When we arrived at a designated evacuation point, whose location we were not told to reveal, the movement was blurry. Several armored vehicles had brought injured people from other sectors of the front. The Russians had learned that the Ukrainians had completely taken Andriyivka and bombarded the city with a mass artillery barrage in revenge.
Matthew, along with the rest of his unit, has been fighting in and around Bakhmut since January of this year. It’s an all-volunteer unit with little fancy western equipment like Leopard tanks or Bradley fighting vehicles. Old Soviet-era equipment, including T-72 tanks, constantly rolls down the street next to us. At night we see flames leaping into the sky in front of us as a GRAD rocket launcher fires at Russian positions. Nevertheless, the brigades here have achieved some of the counteroffensive’s most notable successes, and the brigade believes that their extensive combat experience is more important than the weapons they receive.
However, they are not only in danger from enemy soldiers, they also face an internal enemy. As we sat down to eat at a civilian house in the nearby town of Kostiantynivka, Matthew confided that many of the locals in the area still view Ukrainians as enemies. “These women are some of the only civilians we trust here. Too many people are still waiting here for the Russians. I can’t understand this way of thinking.” The Russians offer locals as little as $100 for information about potential civilian targets and Ukrainian military positions. He remembers once opening the window of a base and seeing a civilian outside filming the soldiers with his cell phone. He tells me: “I almost shot him in the face.”
After a rocket attack on a pizza restaurant in Kramatorsk in June, the SBU arrested a man it accused of filming the scene and sending it to Russian military leaders.
Stanislav, a drone operator with a unit fighting further north, near the town of Kreminna, says another major boost for Ukrainian forces has been the arrival of U.S.-made cluster munitions. The weapons are highly controversial because they leave behind bombs that may not explode and pose a threat to civilians for decades after the end of the conflict. Ukrainian soldiers do not take this argument seriously. “I saw how they work, and as soon as we shoot, the Russians scatter and hide,” Stanislav told The Daily Beast. Before their arrival, Ukrainian forces were losing ground in this region due to a Russian offensive. This has now largely stalled.
“The counteroffensive is going well,” he says, but what he fears most is a longer war. “Everyone who wanted to fight signed up long ago,” he says from a café in the city of Sloviansk. “If the Russians wanted to, they would have millions of men they could mobilize. We are at the absolute limit.”
Whether Ukrainian successes in this area will be enough to consolidate their gains remains to be seen. In the month since the capture of Andriivka, Ukrainian advances in the region have slowed, although soldiers say they are consolidating for further pushes east. Similarly, the Russians have launched their own major offensive in the region, targeting the city of Avdiivka next to the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk. However, despite the use of an enormous amount of armor and artillery, the attack appears to have been largely repulsed. Matthew says: “The Russians attack but have no results, they take some points but only temporarily. We’ve done a great job in our direction. Now we take a break to recover and stay in reserve. I think it’s going to be a hot winter.”
While the Ukrainians have inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians, these developments show that the Russians still have combat capabilities in the region. It also shows how difficult it is to make serious progress after Ukraine’s front lines have become so heavily fortified on both sides. The soldiers know it will take a long time to liberate the rest of their country. “Here is the spirit of brotherhood. We all know our limitations and strengths and what we can do for the country,” says Mario, a 22-year-old paramedic. On February 24, 2022 – the day the full-scale invasion of Russia began – he and his father enlisted in the army first thing in the morning. He studied medicine at the best university in Ukraine for four years. “My family keeps asking when I will come back and finish my studies,” he says. “I’ll tell them I’m still needed here.”