Proud group of Ukrainian troops hold Russian onslaught at bay - for now

MYKOLAIV, Ukraine – The remains of a Russian Tigr fighting vehicle smoked on the side of the road as Ukrainian troops lounged outside th...


MYKOLAIV, Ukraine – The remains of a Russian Tigr fighting vehicle smoked on the side of the road as Ukrainian troops lounged outside their trenches smoking cigarettes. Nearby, a group of local villagers were tinkering with a captured T-90 tank, trying to get it working again so the Ukrainian army could use it.

For three days, Russian forces fought to take Mykolaiv, but by Sunday Ukrainian troops had pushed them back from the city limits and recaptured the airport, halting the Russian advance along the Black Sea, at least temporarily.

“Few people expected such strength from our people because when you haven’t slept for three days, and you only have a dry ration because the rest has burned, when it’s cold outside and there’s nothing to warm you up, and when you’re constantly in combat, believe me, it’s physically very difficult,” said exhausted Colonel Svyatoslav Stetsenko, of the 59th Brigade of the Ukrainian army, in an interview “But our people endured this.”

Taking Mykolaiv remains a key objective for Russian forces, and the sound of artillery in the distance on Sunday suggested the Ukrainians had not pushed them back that far. But Ukraine’s unexpected success in defending this critical port, some 65 miles from Odessa, underscores two emerging trends in the war.

Russia’s failure to quickly seize Mykolaiv and other cities, as Russian President Vladimir V. Putin appears to have intended, is largely a function of the failing performance of its military. The Russian forces suffered from logistical problems, baffling tactical decisions, and low morale.

But it was the fierce and, according to many analysts, surprisingly capable defense of the Ukrainian forces, which are vastly outgunned, that largely blocked the Russian advance and, for now, kept Mykolaiv from falling into the hands of the Russians.

For three days, troops of the Ukrainian Army’s 59th Brigade, along with other military and territorial defense units, defended Mykolaiv from Russian attacks on multiple fronts, facing punitive artillery barrages, helicopter attacks and rocket fire, some of which hit civilian neighborhoods.

On Sunday, civilians elsewhere in Ukraine bore the brunt of a relentless Russian assault. For the second day in a row, Ukrainians were unable to escape from the beleaguered southern city of Mariupol amid heavy Russian shelling despite efforts to broker a ceasefire. And civilians trying to leave Kyiv, the capital, and the nearby town of Irpin have also been attacked by Russian forces. Mortar shells fired at a damaged bridge used by people fleeing the fighting killed four people, including a woman and her two children.

Mr Putin, in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, denied that Russian forces were targeting civilians and pledged to achieve all his goals “through negotiation or war”, according to the French.

That Ukrainian forces still exist and are able to mount a defense after 11 days of war is in itself a major achievement. Most military analysts and even some Ukrainian generals predicted that if Russia staged a full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian army, which is eclipsed by its counterpart in almost every respect, would not last more than a few days, or even a few time. But by taking advantage of their local knowledge, attacking the heavy columns of Russian troops with small, nimble units, and making maximum use of Western military assistance like anti-tank grenades, the Ukrainian forces managed to slow down, if not stop, the Russian advance.

“We fight them day and night; we don’t let them sleep,” said Major General Dmitry Marchenko, the commander of the forces defending Mykolaiv. “They get up in the morning disoriented, tired. Their moral psychological state is simply shattered.

Mykolaiv region governor Vitaliy Kim said Russian forces were surrendering in unexpected numbers and had dropped so much material that he did not have enough military and municipal personnel to recover it all.

“We’re in good spirits now,” he said.

The time for such attitudes may be limited. A senior Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military assessments, said Russian forces outside Mykolaiv appeared to be regrouping and preparing for a counterattack, possibly with more firepower. Russia still has many more troops and advanced weapons than Ukraine, and its air force now dominates the skies.

Despite near-frenzied warnings from the White House of an impending Russian invasion in the weeks leading up to Feb. 24, the initial attack took Colonel Stetsenko’s unit by surprise, he said. His brigade was on a training exercise near the border with Crimea outside a town called Oleshky and was only half assembled when ordered to prepare for battle.

“If we had received the order three or four days before, we could have prepared, digging trenches,” he said.

This delay nearly led to the destruction of his brigade in the early hours of the war, he said.

The Russian force that overran Crimea was five times larger than its Ukrainian unit and quickly overwhelmed it. His brigade had no air support and few functioning anti-aircraft systems, as most had been sent to Kiev to defend the capital. A large part of the brigade’s tanks and armored fighting vehicles were destroyed during the initial attack by Russian aircraft.

Brigade commander Col. Oleksandr Vinogradov had lost contact with military leaders and was forced to make decisions on the fly, said Col. Stetsenko, who was with the commander throughout. Surrounded and suffering heavy casualties from strikes by Russian warplanes, Colonel Vinogradov ordered his remaining tank and artillery units to punch a hole in a unit of Russian airborne assault troops was positioned at the rear of the Ukrainian brigade.

The maneuver allowed the main Ukrainian combat force to cross a bridge over the Dnieper and retreat west about 45 miles to Mykolaiv, where it could regroup and link up with other units to continue. the fight.

“Enemy combat planes attacked our tanks, several tanks were hit and burned, and the rest stayed and did not flee,” Colonel Stetsenko said. “They knew that behind them were other people, and they sacrificed their lives to cross the bridge and dig on the other side.”

The tactic worked, but the costs were high. In retreating to Mykolaiv, Colonel Stetsenko’s brigade had to sacrifice Kherson, which on March 2 became the first major city to fall to Russian forces. They had no choice, Colonel Stetsenko said. If they had tried to defend Kherson, the Russian forces could have flanked and cut them off, opening a road to the west and to Odessa.

With a neatly trimmed white beard and deep crevices around his mouth where dimples might once have been, Colonel Stetsenko has an unusual build on the battlefield. He is 56 and had been retired from the military for a decade when he decided to re-enlist in 2020. By then, Ukrainian forces were already fighting a Kremlin-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine, and Colonel Stetsenko felt he had to do his part. .

“I knew a lot of people who had served before were tired,” he said. “It’s hard to live this long without their families, and we needed people to serve. So I went to the military recruiting center and signed a contract.

Such dedication partly explains the fierce resistance of Ukrainian soldiers on the battlefield, while Russian troops seem to be surrendering in large numbers. An acute knowledge of the Russian military gives Ukrainian forces another advantage.

Colonel Stetsenko served with the Russians as a young soldier in the Soviet Army in the 1980s when he was posted to the Far East. Now soldiers based in some of the same Russian garrisons where he spent his youth are fighting against him.

“They are my enemy now,” he said. “And every one of them that comes here with weapons, that comes here as an invader, I’ll do my best to keep them as fertilizer for our land.”

On Sunday evening, Colonel Stetsenko returned to the front line outside the city where the sounds of battle rose again as Russian troops regrouped for a counterattack. This has been the path of this war, nearly a week and a half, a violent ebb and flow that has focused on a few key cities like Kiev and Kharkiv.

At Mykolaiv, Colonel Stetsenko and his comrades reached the city on a day of rest. The sun came out for a few hours in the morning, followed by light snow in the afternoon. Streets that were deserted a few days ago are once again crowded with mothers pushing strollers and people walking dogs.

In the outskirts where the fighting had been heaviest, Nikolai Bilyashchat, 54, had joined some of his neighbors to work on the Russian T-90 tank, which now sported a Ukrainian flag. It had been damaged when Ukrainian forces blew up the bridge it was riding on, and now only the steps on its left side functioned properly.

“I’ve been a driver all my life, so I know a bit about mechanics,” Mr Bilyashchat said. “Although I don’t know anything about tanks.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Proud group of Ukrainian troops hold Russian onslaught at bay - for now
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