For 10 days, Ukrainian marines fought street by street and house by house to recapture the southeastern village of Staromaiorske, navigating artillery fire, airstrikes and hundreds of Russian troops.
The Russians put up a ferocious defense but that ended on Thursday when they folded and the Ukrainians claimed victory. “Some ran away, some were left behind,” said an assault commander from Ukraine’s 35th Marine Brigade, who uses the call sign Dikyi, which means Wild. “We were taking captives,” he added.
The recapture of Staromaiorske, a small village that is nonetheless critical to Ukraine’s southern strategy, was such a welcome development for Ukraine that President Volodymyr Zelensky announced it himself.
The counteroffensive has largely been a brutal lesson for Ukrainian troops, who have struggled to seize back territory across the southern region of Zaporizhzhia. In two months, Ukrainian troops have advanced less than 10 miles at any point along the region’s 100-mile front.
Victories, like the one at Staromaiorske, represent a potential breakthrough in the fighting, Ukrainian officials said, perhaps opening the way for a broader push by their country’s forces.
Ukraine is focused on two main southward thrusts, with the aim of cutting off Russian resupply routes. One line of attack goes through Staromaiorske toward the city of Berdiansk on the Azov Sea, and another, farther west, toward the city of Melitopol.
Both cities command strategic transit routes for Russian forces occupying southern Ukraine and Crimea.
For weeks, Ukrainian artillery and long-range missiles have been pounding Russian supply lines and rear bases in an effort to break their operational capability and undermine Russian morale.
Rockets fired from an American-made HIMARS mobile launcher surprise drivers on country roads near the front line as Ukrainian units attack targets deep behind Russian lines.
As the Ukrainian forces deploy Western-supplied weapons, the Russian troops are making use of deadly new tactics and weapons of their own, including attack drones and remote-detonated mines.
In Staromaiorske, Russian soldiers dug bunkers underneath the village’s houses with multiple exits so a house would erupt like an anthill when under attack, said Dikyi, the Ukrainian commander. He lost one of his best men, a 27-year-old called Vyacheslav, who used the call sign Bandit, in an assault on such a house, he said.
The key to the Ukrainian success in the village, he said, was wearing down the Russian soldiers’ will to fight. The first sign of the Russian collapse was when 20 soldiers abandoned their position after complaining that reinforcements had failed to arrive, he said.
From intercepts of Russian communications and interrogations of prisoners, the Ukrainian forces knew that their opponents were taking casualties and that some were refusing to fight.
“They were panicking,” Dikyi said. The Ukrainians redoubled their attack with a frontal assault with two battalions along four streets.
As officials celebrated Ukraine’s progress in Staromaiorske, troops elsewhere on the ground said that Russian defenses and firepower remained formidable and in places impassable.
A soldier at a medical post, awaiting evacuation for a concussion, recently described how his battalion had been decimated when it came under Russian artillery and tank fire. His brigade, the 23rd, was one of nine newly formed, Western-trained units prepared and equipped for the counteroffensive. But the brigade, he said, had been thrown into the fight without sufficient artillery support and had been unable to defend themselves against Russian firepower.
In one battle in which his unit took part, Ukrainian soldiers attacked in 10 American-made MaxxPro armored vehicles, but only one came back, he said. He showed photographs of the damaged vehicles, ripped open and burned out, which he said had been hauled back to a repair base. The soldier declined to give his name for fear of getting into trouble with his superiors.
“They were hit by anti-tank fire,” he said. “They hit them and they kept hitting. They were burned out. The guys did not survive.”
Later, as they sheltered in a captured Russian bunker, his unit came under attack by mortar fire and grenade launchers, he said. Moments before the bunker was destroyed by a Russian tank, he added, his unit escaped.
“If we had stayed 10 minutes longer, we would not be alive,” he said.
The soldier lost a 22-year-old friend, Stas, in the shelling the day before, he said, adding that in just over a month, his battalion had suffered so many dead and wounded that only 10 men remained at the front line.
Another soldier, who joined up last year and asked to be identified only by his first name, Oleksiy, said that his unit had taken heavy losses as Russian troops directed artillery fire and aerial bombs onto their positions.
“We were shot like on a shooting range,” he said. “A drone was flying above us and correcting the artillery fire.” Their positions were in former Russian positions, hemmed in by minefields, he said, and the Russian forces were able to keep them pinned down and under constant drone surveillance.
Soldiers were running out of ammunition and water but could only sneak in and out of their positions in ones or twos, on foot, when the light was poor just before dawn and at dusk, he said.
The Ukrainian troops, Oleksiy added, were unable to suppress the Russian firepower. “At first we had artillery support, and then we ran out,” he said. “We need more weapons,” he added.
“If the troops knew we had a good supply and coordinated support from behind, we would take more territory.”
Interviews with Ukrainian soldiers and a review of military surveillance footage from a recent attack indicate that many Ukrainian units are sustaining heavy losses.
A group with special operations training, deployed last month to storm Russian positions in a village on the western part of the front, took such heavy casualties in four days of assaults that they had to pull out without success.
After their armored vehicles were largely destroyed by artillery strikes on the first day, they revised their plan to approach the village on foot through a tree line that had been mined. The Ukrainians cleared a narrow path with demining explosives and the first soldiers reached the Russian positions and dropped down into a trench.
Drone footage of the event showed what happened next. Explosions suddenly detonated inside the trenches and other strikes hit soldiers on the edge of the tree line. The video footage has been verified by The New York Times.
“The trenches were mined,” said the assault commander, who uses the call sign Voskres, short for Resurrection. “Our guys started jumping in the trenches and blowing up,” he added. The Russian forces were watching, and they remotely detonated the mines, he said.
Those who managed to avoid the mines came under attack from multiple Russian kamikaze drones. “It seemed like they had a drone for each person,” he said. “The amount of equipment the Russians have, had we known, it was like mission impossible.”
Several weeks later, the village remains in Russian hands.
Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting.