The question worries Ukrainian troops amid a grinding counteroffensive

Neskuchne, Ukraine

The four roads in Staromayorske seem almost dusty in the drone footage. It’s a tiny village, but as the latest gain in Ukraine’s renewed counteroffensive toward Mariupol, Staromayorske’s symbolism far outweighs its size.

Its fate represents a bigger problem for Ukraine as it pushes forward. After the bitter fighting during Ukraine’s advances, there is barely a wall left from which Kyiv’s forces can defend the recaptured ground, leaving their hard-earned advances vulnerable to Russia’s blunt artillery.

That’s exactly what happened on Monday, when sustained shelling reportedly hit the ruins of the village. At one point, Russian officials even claimed to have kicked the Ukrainian forces out of the village, which Ukraine vehemently denied.

For the troops fighting for Staromayorske, a mix of Ukraine’s AREY Territorial Defense Forces from Krivyh Rih and 35th Marines, the battle was the latest of many in which grueling losses have destroyed every 100 yards regained.

A soldier of the AREY forces, call sign Krivbas, rushed to the front as he described the main danger of the ten-day Staromayorske offensive, at the end of which Russian forces suddenly fled from the ruins.

“When you attack under enemy fire, you have nowhere to hide,” Krivbas said of the destroyed village. “That’s the hardest part.”


Images from drone footage show the extensive damage in Staromayorsk, Ukraine.

He said the Russians have tried to retake the village twice with small groups of troops since it fell last week.

Ukraine’s position is made increasingly difficult as Russian forces are on the eastern side of the river, able to use its natural border from which to fire artillery. These latest advances remain small in scale, but came after Pentagon officials suggested Ukraine had stepped up a gear in its months-long counteroffensive and finally committed reserves to the fight.

Hopes are high for a faster pace of progress, but have been tempered by the very real threat of Russian air power and Ukrainian attrition, troops in frontline villages told CNN.

Krivbas walked through the ruins of Neskuchne, a major city liberated by Ukraine weeks earlier, as he described the tenacity and cunning of the Russian forces he fought there.

Prior to the attack, Ukraine had estimated that only 20 Russians were defending the city. But there were another 200 hidden in various basements who didn’t even come out to use the toilet, apparently using plastic bottles underground to avoid Ukrainian surveillance drones.

As a result, Ukraine thought its force of 70 was overwhelming, but instead met stiffer resistance than expected.

The bitter battle for Neskuchne ended, Krivbas said, in the school’s hall, where Russian paratroopers made their last stand before fleeing. He gestures to the trash littering the school floor and the appalling conditions the occupiers appeared to be living in before the battle set the building on fire.

The wall graffiti is equally bleak: “There is no love.” “God is for Russia.” “Welcome to Mordor.”

It’s a nihilism that only reinforces a key question Ukrainian forces have: Why are Russian troops fighting so hard for these small settlements? As they push further into the occupied territory, the fight remains just as fierce.

The fact that Russian forces are fighting so persistently for each solution has cast doubt on claims that Russia’s defense line is tough but thin.

“I hope that when we get through their last line of defense, they start running,” Krivbas said. “At the moment, they still feel like there’s something behind them.”

The recent deployment of Ukraine’s reserves and talk of a new phase of the counteroffensive can only boost morale so far.

“We feel support, but we are very, very tired,” Krivbas said.

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The brutal tenacity of Russian tactics remains steadfast.

Amid constant outgoing shelling, Serhey, an AREY commander, said, “Their tactics have not changed. They are putting the Storm Z prisoners in front without communication or information.”

Such prisoner raids – waves of poorly equipped recruits from Russia’s prisons, often described as ‘cannon fodder’ – are used to expose Ukrainian firing positions so better-trained Russian soldiers can engage them, he said.

He added: “They are dying. I don’t understand their motivation. Or what they are fighting for.”

His troops showed a small Russian booklet entitled, “Why We Fight”, found in captured Russian positions, which gives a distorted narrative of the reasons for the invasion, saying that Russia had been attacked and had no choice but to defend itself.

Another Staromayorske liberator, call sign “Reva”, carried a captured modern AK-12 Russian assault rifle as he described the apparent Russian use of irritant gas on the front lines.

“There was chaotic (Russian) shooting to find out where we were. Then the gas. You don’t feel it. It moves slowly near the ground. I was packing my rucksack when I felt a burning sensation in my throat and nose,’ he recalled.

Even the mines laid by the Russians were captured.

A young military deminer who goes by the call sign Volt described how anti-tank mines he found were laid with a grenade under them so that the grenade would detonate if the larger mine was moved, causing a double explosion. His explanation was interrupted by loud outgoing rocket fire.

Ukraine has picked up the pace and is moving. Its troops just don’t know how much longer this bitter struggle will continue.

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