“Give us more weapons and we’ll get the job done,” is the cry from the trenches in Ukraine

Army chaplain Oleksandr (40) races south from Mykolaiv, past open fields, trenches, huge sand dunes, solar panels with bullet holes in them. A startled pheasant just manages to get to safety, two army helicopters skim low. Further on the southern Ukrainian horizon, clouds of black smoke rise to the left and right of the car: there are battles between the Ukrainian and Russian armies.

Oleksandr – beard, cap, sunglasses, military clothes and bulletproof vest – is on his way to the front line with a car full of food and medicine, less than six hundred meters from the Russian lines. Russian artillery often fires this way, and in this open lowland, a car is easily spotted by the Russian drones in the sky. Deadly birds, Oleksandr calls them. “They see everything,” he says resignedly as he continues to accelerate.

In the first month of the war, Oleksandr – for security reasons he keeps his surname secret – could not drive here. At that time, this area was still in the hands of the Russian army. The Russians were in a semicircle around Mykolaiv, ready to take the city.

But now it’s different. While the Russian army in the Donbas is still slowly but surely gaining ground, on the southern front it is the Ukrainians who have pushed the Russians back tens of thousands of kilometers. The Ukrainians are now less than twenty kilometers from the southern city of Kherson. There has been talk of a major Ukrainian offensive for weeks.

Broken windows

Once we’ve passed a checkpoint, Oleksandr asks to put the cell phone on airplane mode – the cell signal is drawing fire. For security reasons, he also asks not to mention the name of the village we are going into. He parks his car at a dilapidated school, which is used as a command post.

Three soldiers suddenly poke their heads out of a basement. “We are safe down there,” said soldier Oleksandr Golykov (50), who himself is sitting on a chair outside. He looks relaxed but keeps his helmet on just in case. His automatic rifle rests on his thigh.

Before the war, Golykov gave swimming lessons to children, one day after the Russian invasion on February 24, he joined the army. “Athletes, musicians, teachers, engineers: all of Ukraine is fighting.”

On his first day at the front, a mortar shell exploded seven meters from him. Fear gripped him for a moment. Now he has become accustomed to the violence of war. “It is ingrained in humans to get used to everything.”

Birds chirping fills the silence, but it never lasts long, because explosions can be heard almost continuously. Centimeter by centimeter, meter by meter, says Golykov, Ukraine has been able to recapture the villages south of Mykolaiv in recent months. Accurate Ukrainian artillery fire was the deciding factor, he said. “Then there was a counterattack from the Russians. We declined. Both parties have now taken up permanent positions.”

In the next phase, Ukraine wants to steam up towards Kherson, the port city captured by the Russians. Rumors have swirled for weeks that Ukraine is preparing for an offensive in the south. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said so in the British newspaper The times this month that President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered the Ukrainian army to liberate the occupied coastal areas.

South is a weak place

The Ukrainian strategy does not come out of the blue. While Russia focuses on the fight in eastern Ukraine, the south has become a weak point. The front here differs from the one in Donbas, explains Golykov. “The front line in the south is huge. They cannot man them well everywhere”. Moscow also had a foothold in the east with the ‘People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, which erupted in 2014: “All the vehicles and weapons were already there. There is nothing in the south. They had to fight here.”

In recent weeks, Ukraine has deployed Western weapons as a prelude to the offensive against Kherson. Since the arrival of the advanced US Himars missile systems, Ukraine has also attacked Russian weapons depots in the south, such as at Nova Kakhovka. Ukraine also bombed the Antonivsky bridge near Kherson again last week. The port city is isolated on the northern bank of the wide Dnieper. If the bridges are destroyed, the Russian garrison is virtually cut off from the hinterland, and Kherson can only be supplied via a roundabout route, making transport more vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks. The Antonivsky Bridge still stands but is heavily damaged. Two other bridges were also damaged. As a safety measure, the Russians put pontoon bridges over the Dnieper.

For the British intelligence service, it is a sign that the Ukrainian operation has started. The counter-offensive is gaining momentum, the British Ministry of Defense reported this week. But south of Mykolaiv there is nothing to notice yet. Nowhere are long lines of columns of tanks and vehicles or soldiers gathering. The Ukrainian offensive is developing slowly. Careful, says Private Golykov. “We are not Russians who shoot everything and everyone to pieces. It is not important to them how many die. Our officers care about our lives.” He sniffs. “And if we’d had more Himars, we could have acted faster.”

Ukraine has twelve Himars systems. They scare the Russians. “Give Ukraine a hundred,” Golykov asks. “I understand it’s different than fighting a fight, but teach us that and we’ll get the job done.”

If Ukraine succeeds in liberating Kherson, it will be a painful defeat for Russia. The port city is the only major place in the hands of the Russians north and west of the Dnieper. If taken, Ukraine signals an advance on Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.

Western experts mainly emphasize the economic factor of the counter-offensive. If Kherson is taken, the entire Black Sea coast west of Crimea will be in Ukrainian hands. Ukraine thus has wider access to the Black Sea, on which it is so dependent economically. The port of Kherson can also be used for grain exports, which should be restarted after the agreement with Russia.

But these arguments are not discussed at all in conversations with Ukrainians. “This is our country and we will take it back,” Chaplain Oleksandr expressed the sentiment among the Ukrainian population.

Office shot to pieces

Two days earlier, Vitali Kim, head of the regional military administration in Mykolaiv, also referred to the Ukrainian civilians in the occupied territories. “It is our people who are there. We must free them. It is crucial,’ says Kim (41) during a conversation on the street in the government part of Mykolaiv, which is closed with concrete blocks and barbed wire.

Kim became famous with neat videos he recorded in his office with his feet on the table. But now the office has been blasted to pieces, nearly split in two by a Russian bomb attack in March that left 37 dead.

Mykolaiv is still under Russian fire. The city is within range of Russian artillery. The night before, a Russian missile hit a gas station. Two university buildings and hotels are also in ruins.

In the first days of the war, the Russian army advanced on Mykolaiv, but did not take the city. The residents rose up against the Russian soldiers, explains Kim. “Everyone is gathered here. Nobody wants the Russians here. Civilians, the military, hunters, fishermen – everyone grabbed a weapon and went to battle. The Russians did not expect such resistance.”

This was also the case with the liberation of the villages south of Mykolaiv, says Kim. Ukraine chased the Russian army. “They got no rest. They didn’t sleep. During the day they fought with the Ukrainian army, at night partisans chased them in places where they stayed, like in the forests. Everyone fought.”

Now the next part of the war awaits the Ukrainians in the south: the counter-offensive. Kim doesn’t want to say much about it – secretly, he says. But bombing the Antonivsky bridge is part of the attack plan, he admits. “Russia uses the bridge massively for military traffic.”

Kim sees opportunities down south. “The Russian army is not as strong as claimed. They cannot attack two or three places. They are now concentrated in Donbas.” The Russian army is now sending reinforcements to the southern front, according to Ukraine.

Kalashnikov within reach

“When I say lie down, lie down.” Chaplain Oleksandr points the way, heading towards an observatory 600 meters from Russian soldiers. The walk from the school building goes through the affected village: blackened walls and broken roofs. A gold-painted Soviet memorial to soldiers killed in World War II sparkles unscathed in the sun.

There are no more than twenty people out of the original thousand living in the village, says the chaplain. He visits them sometimes with water and food. “They are pro-Russian and are waiting for the Russian army.”

At the vantage point, a soldier peers out from behind a five-foot wall of sandbags across the open field. His Kalashnikov is within reach. Behind him is a trench. The soldier’s name is also Oleksandr and he is sitting here alone. He keeps in touch with other soldiers with his walkie-talkie.

He can hide in a pile of sandbags, soil and logs. It’s dark inside. Empty water bottles, a card and packs of cigarettes lie on a table.

Oleksandr’s best protection is his ears. He tries to listen for incoming Russian fire. “Hush, hush,” he says sometimes, then looks out over the plain. “Nothing, nothing,” he continues. And then again: boom. “Oooooh,” Oleksandr shouts. Immediately after that comes another thump, and another. Clouds of black smoke rise on the horizon.

When there is silence, he talks lightly about what happened when the Ukrainian army advanced on the villages under Mykolaiv. “We came and they left.” Oleksandr tells it as if the Ukrainians didn’t have to fire a shot. “And so the war started here, as you hear now.” The battle has turned into trench warfare like World War I, but one with 21st century drones flying overhead.

Western arms supplies

In the car on the way to the front, Chaplain Oleksandr scoffed at Western arms supplies. The West is nice to talk to, he says, but the amount of weapons Ukraine is getting is too small to push the Russians back, he says. Minister Reznikov said in The times that Ukraine has a million soldiers available to retake the southern territories, but not enough weapons. The US promised to deliver four more Himars, Poland is sending tanks.

Soldier Oleksandr at the lookout – he too is keeping his last name secret for security reasons – allows the West to act more quickly. After fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2016, he traveled around Europe building exhibitions. “Everything is slow with you.”

There is no shortage of militancy among Ukrainians. A survey by the International Institute of Sociology in Kiev among 2,000 Ukrainians shows that 84 percent find territorial concessions unacceptable. At the same time, there is a feeling that without huge Western arms supplies, the major offensive in the south may take some time.

“Hush, hush,” Oleksandr says again. He listens carefully, but nothing. “War isn’t that hard,” he continues. “It depends on who has the most guns.”

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