OWith a deafening roar, the rockets burst from the launcher in the rear of the Mitsubishi. The van was parked near a field of blackened dead sunflowers in territory that had been retaken from Russian forces in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine just two weeks ago.
Just 30 seconds later, the two 122mm missiles, slicing through heavy gray skies, ripped through a makeshift Russian headquarters that had served as a base for around 100 soldiers at an abandoned school in the village of Dudchany, eight kilometers to the southwest.
Ukrainian forces now intend to retake Dudchany in the coming weeks as they attempt to push west towards the city of Kherson, the eponymous regional capital and the first city to fall to Russia after Vladimir Putin’s invasion in February.
It is the front line of the great advance of the Ukrainian forces on the Kherson oblast. In recent days, Sergey Surovikin, the new commander of Putin’s forces, who has made a name for himself as an “Armageddon general” in Syria, admitted that there are “difficult decisions to be made” in the region. Russian-appointed civil authorities have ordered an evacuation of parts of the city of Kherson north of the Dnieper.
Ukrainian soldiers believe the momentum is with them. “We have a window,” says Max, 38.
Max commands a unit of 30 men, soon to be 54, who pilot the reconnaissance and attack drones that provide Ukrainian artillery on this flank of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s counter-offensive with the locations of Russian troops and equipment.
He provided coordinates for the artillery that struck Russian HQ at Dudchany on Wednesday before he and his men rushed to cover to avoid retaliatory fire.
“You can call us the legendary 248 Battalion,” he laughed. “We always hit the target.” The unit is also known as “the Karlssons”, named after a 1950s Swedish cartoon character capable of flight thanks to a propeller in the back which remains popular in this part of the world.
In a dark world, a little childishness goes a long way. “Before, I worked for my family business which made fertilizers,” explains Max. “You always do it a certain way,” joked Shannon, 39, a New Zealander from Christchurch, who joined the unit in August.
The Karlssons lost a man to a grenade over the summer and two soldiers were hospitalized two weeks ago after their vehicle hit a mine. As a recon unit, these are high value scalps.
Shannon, a former soldier in his own country, and Aaron, 25, a former US Marine from New England who joined at the same time this summer, had a close reconnaissance mission to complete later in the day. They had to crawl within 1 km (0.6 miles) of their Russian target. “We had close calls,” Aaron said. “I found shrapnel in my pocket after an hour. Save that for good luck.
Kherson’s value as a major strategic and symbolic target for Ukraine was perhaps only enhanced by Putin’s announcement of his “annexation” along with Donetsk, Lugansk and Zaporizhzhia. The proclamation was met with worldwide condemnation and mockery given the ongoing fighting.
The upper third of Kherson Oblast in southern Ukraine is cut off from the rest of the province by the Dnieper River. Russia has held both the two-thirds under the river and, until recently, much of the rest of the territory north of it since shortly after the start of the war.
But the Ukrainian counter-offensive launched in August has eaten away at this upper part badly, leading Western officials to suggest that the city of Kherson itself, or at least the northern part, could be taken within weeks.
“Now we have the opportunity to take the right bank [the north of the Dnieper river]”, Max said. But the fighting is fierce. Intercepted communications reveal that Russian morale is breaking in parts of the line in Kherson. But not on this flank of the oblast where Max and his men.” We hear the interceptions and they are a very good team. In many places they are ready to surrender, but here they are ready to fight until the end,” he said.
Another threat to the Ukrainian advance is the fear that the Russians will blow up the Kakhovka hydroelectric plant further down the Dnieper from Dudchany. It could turn passable land into a swamp. “It’s possible because it doesn’t matter to them. They do not care. If they lose areas, they don’t mind making the situation worse for the Ukrainians.
There is also a shortage of drones. Much of the hardware of Ukrainians is funded from outside the state through crowdfunding. Up to 20 of them have been shot down or rendered ineffective due to Russian cyber technology. A small four-rotor drone, used earlier Wednesday from the garden of an abandoned house in a recently liberated village to inspect Russian troop and artillery positions across the Dnieper, is Chinese-made. It flies up to a height of 1.5 km (one mile) and has a 200x zoom allowing it to see across the flat plains of this part of the country for about 40 km (25 miles). “But we don’t have American or British drones and we would really like to have them,” Max said.
The Karlsson nevertheless continue to move forward and accumulate successes. The abandoned Russian trenches, tank helmets, flares to guide helicopters and rations lying around the fields in which they operate testify to the freshness of these victories and the value of their work. The absence of their friends by their side reminds them of the risks they take.