Ukrainian military launches offensive to retake territory from Russia
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Ukrainian military says it's launching an offensive in the country's south. They're trying to take back territory from the Russians. Ukrainian commanders say heavy weapons from the West are helping but insist they need more to succeed. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from the southern front.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I'm standing in a village in the Mykolaiv region one afternoon last week meeting with Ukrainian military commanders. And then our producer, Katia (ph) and I, we heard a boom.
KATIA, BYLINE: Those are...
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
LANGFITT: OK. We can definitely hear that. That's not far.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Look, there's a second one.
LANGFITT: What is it? Is it - oh, they're rockets. They're firing rockets.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
LANGFITT: These are American HIMARS, or high mobility artillery rocket systems. They're launching from a nearby farm field and leave long, white contrails against the blue sky as they head towards Russian military targets. A Ukrainian reconnaissance soldier nicknamed Fox is watching with us. He makes a joke off mic.
FOX: Thanks for this present.
LANGFITT: You said thanks for this present. Are they helpful?
FOX: Of course.
LANGFITT: Fox wears green body armor with a knife and a walkie talkie strapped to its front. Like most soldiers I talked to here, he loves HIMARS.
FOX: Yesterday, we had the one job, and it was exactly in the point from long distance.
LANGFITT: How far was the distance?
FOX: Maybe about 40 kilometers.
LANGFITT: And you hit it right on.
FOX: Yeah, exactly.
LANGFITT: Forty kilometers is about 24 miles. In fact, the HIMARS deployed here can strike at more than twice that distance. I was last on the southern front four months ago. Back then, the Ukrainians had nowhere near that strike range. Sitting at a table nearby is Colonel Roman Kostenko. He says the new weapons are helping the Ukrainians fight back.
ROMAN KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) After these systems hit the Russians' arms depots and bridges that connect to the city of Kherson, the enemy was forced to reduce the density of fire on our positions.
LANGFITT: He's referring to key bridges the Russians used to supply their soldiers in Kherson, a strategic port city, which fell to the Russians in March. But he says there aren't enough of these weapons to really turn the tide. Kostenko's a Ukrainian lawmaker and soldier. Since the war, he's been working as a military commander in this region, where he grew up. I last saw him here back in the spring.
How much territory have you taken in the South since we saw each other in April?
KOSTENKO: Not a lot.
LANGFITT: Not a lot.
KOSTENKO: Not a lot.
LANGFITT: Progress has been slow, sometimes an average of a mile or so a month. An anti-tank operator told me it took three months to take one village because the Russians were so well dug-in. Kostenko's grateful for all the weapons from the West but says the army here needs much more to make a big push in the south.
KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) Russia is very resourceful. What we have now is probably 30% of what we really need in order to carry out successful offensive actions to liberate our territories.
LANGFITT: Kostenko says the troops here have had successes. He says soldiers recently took back a nearby village from the Russians. He cited the ingenuity of a Special Forces team and the element of surprise.
KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) So they left at 3 in the morning, went to a river. The enemy mined the river bottom. And to avoid stepping on the mines, our soldiers use flippers.
LANGFITT: Kostenko also says Western long-range weapons helped batter the Russians holding the village. He pulls up a video on his phone.
KOSTENKO: It's cool. In this village, I show you.
LANGFITT: Oh, wow, that's a big explosion.
There's a giant crater in front of the school. Kostenko says that strike killed at least 20 Russian soldiers. He won't name the weapon but only says it came from what he calls our Western partners. The Ukrainians still rely on older weapons with less range to do a lot of their shelling. One morning, I went to see one.
A Ukrainian soldier is leading me through a field of dandelions. And just along the side of a hill, you can see this big white cylinder stuck into the ground. It's the remains of a cluster bomb. And we're on our way to meet a Ukrainian Howitzer team.
I come upon a rusting Howitzer, partly caked in mud.
LANGFITT: The crew is cleaning the firing mechanism with water and spray cans of lubricant and then the assembly. They live in a big hut they've built out of empty wooden ammunition crates. A member of the crew named Artem (ph), who wears a black Reebok T-shirt, says the Ukrainians captured the Howitzer from the Russians earlier in the war. The trophy, as he calls it, dates to 1989. Its range - just over 12 miles. The Howitzer is entirely manual. Artem spins the wheels to move the barrel up and down and from side to side.
ARTEM: (Through interpreter) This is a good weapon, but it's an old weapon. I'd like something newer, but we have what we have.
LANGFITT: In fact, it's so old the team is running out of ammunition for it, and in a few weeks, they'll retire this Cold War relic. Weapons are just one challenge the Ukrainian army faces; another - continuing to build civilians into a capable fighting force. I met Major Roman Kovalyov (ph) in the Kherson region last week. He says 90% of his battalion had no previous military experience.
ROMAN KOVALYOV: (Through interpreter) They have passionate hearts. They are ready to go into battle. However, they don't realize how little they know, and we need to find a balance between their desire and their skills.
LANGFITT: The biggest challenge in the first couple of months of the war was instilling discipline. For instance, the major sent one team out to provide cover for another.
KOVALYOV: (Through interpreter) They forgot water, night vision goggles, backpacks. Due to the fact that the guys had trouble organizing their stuff, they were half an hour late. And because of that, the second unit came under heavy fire. Thank God no one was hurt.
LANGFITT: Afterward, the team that got shelled punched out the late comers. The major says his soldiers have come a long way since then.
KOVALYOV: (Through interpreter) If we compare us from four or five months ago to today, we have improved significantly.
LANGFITT: But the major also says an improved army can only do so much against a better armed one.
KOVALYOV: (Through interpreter) I have a clear feeling lately that we are being kept on artificial respiration. We are given just enough so that we do not lose and don't win. Give us enough weapons, please, and we give you our word. We will knock the enemy out of our land.
LANGFITT: The major and other commanders here worry the West doesn't share Ukraine's goal of total victory.
KOVALYOV: (Through interpreter) I think they don't want Russia to lose. Politics is a complicated thing. It is clear that the world does not only consist of a conflict in Ukraine. There are a lot of conflicts all over the planet and a lot of geopolitical interests. There's China, Taiwan and a bunch of regions.
LANGFITT: But Major Kovalyov also says he thinks the future world order is being decided here and now in his homeland. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, in Ukraine's Kherson region. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.