Their first battle plan became obsolete the moment the dam collapsed. So Ukrainian special forces officers spent six months adapting their fight to secure a crossing across the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine.
But it was not enough to cross the river. They needed reinforcements to support it. And to do this they needed proof that it could be done. For one of the officers, nicknamed Skif, that meant a flag and a photo op.
Skif, Ukrainian abbreviation for the nomadic Scythian people who founded an empire in what is now Crimea, moves like the camouflaged amphibian that it is: calculating, deliberate, right up to the moment to attack.
He is an officer of Center 73, one of Ukraine’s most elite special forces units: frontline scouts, drone operators and underwater saboteurs. Their strike teams are part of the Special Operations Forces that lead partisans into occupied territories, sneak into Russian barracks to plant bombs, and prepare the ground to reclaim territory captured by Russia.
Their mission on the more dynamic of the six-month counteroffensive’s two main fronts reflects many of the problems in Ukraine’s broader effort. It has been one of the few successes of the Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive.
By the end of May, the Center’s 73 men were stationed along the river bank, some of them almost within sight of the Kakhovka Dam. They were within range of the Russian forces that had controlled the dam and territory along the Dnieper since the first days after the large-scale invasion of February 2022. And both sides knew that Ukraine’s impending counteroffensive was aimed control of the river as the key to recovering the occupied south.
In the first days of the operation, on June 6, an explosion destroyed the dam, sending a wall of water from the reservoir downstream, killing untold numbers of civilians and leveling Ukrainian army positions.
“We were ready to cross. And then the dam exploded,” Skif said. The water rose 20 meters, submerging supply lines, Russian positions and everything in its path for hundreds of kilometers. The race was on: What forces could seize the islands when the waters receded, and with them complete control of the Dnieper?
To most Ukrainians who see them on the streets of the almost deserted frontline villages of the Kherson region, they are guys in T-shirts and flip-flops, ordinary people. The locals who refused to evacuate have all become accustomed to the sounds of war, so even their eerie calm in the face of air raid alarms, nearby gunfire, and artillery fire does not seem unusual.
AP joined one of the underground units several times over six months along the Dnieper. Frogmen are nocturnal. They transform from nondescript civilians into elite combatants, some in wetsuits and others in boats. In the morning, when their operations end, they return to anonymity.
They rarely take credit for their work and Ukrainians rarely learn about their operations. But Russian military statements gleefully and wrongly announcing the destruction of Center 73 are an indication of its effectiveness.
The men had the latest equipment, night vision goggles, waterproof rifles that can be assembled in a matter of seconds, underwater breathing apparatus that does not produce bubbles on the surface, and cloaks that hide their heat signature during night raids.
It was a matter of days before the counteroffensive would begin, and Center 73 had already located the Russian positions they would take on the islands of the Dnieper River. Skif’s men were within reach of the June 6 explosion that destroyed the Kakhovka Dam, flooded vast swathes of the Kherson region and disrupted Skif’s attack plan.
An AP investigation found that Russian forces had the means, motive and opportunity to blow up the dam.
Both the Russians and the Ukrainians withdrew from the river to regroup: the Russians to the south and the Ukrainians to the north.
Abandoned houses, clubs and shops became headquarters, with banks of computer screens filling the rooms and makeshift weapons workshops nearby. Always reserved, changing location frequently, they meticulously plan each operation, sleeping only a few hours during the day with the curtains closed.
They wake up at dusk, load equipment into a 4X4 and drive to a different point on the riverbank to scout new routes for a counteroffensive, provoke Russian forces into shooting at them to determine the enemy’s location, and recover soggy caches of supplies. with his boat. Periodically, they captured a Russian soldier trapped in a tree or found a pile of landmines washed ashore.
And they themselves were stuck. Other special forces participated in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, the other main front of the counteroffensive. Skif’s men waited patiently for the water to subside so they could take up positions and lay the groundwork for the arrival of infantry and marines to the Kherson region.
Skif, a veteran of the 2022 Battle of Mariupol who had survived 266 days as a prisoner of war, wanted to fight. He had been part of Center 73 before Mariupol and rejoined after being released in a prisoner of war exchange.
Ukraine created its special forces in response to Russia’s rapid annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas in 2014a precursor to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
“We realized that we were much smaller than our enemy”, said Oleksandr Kindratenko, press officer of the Special Operations Forces. “There was an emphasis on quality. “They were supposed to be small groups that carried out operational or strategic tasks.”
He said they were partly trained and equipped by Europeans, including those from NATO countries, but their own recent battle experience means they are now both teachers and students.
Tasks that the unit considers routine – scouting as close to the Russians as possible, placing explosives under their noses, underwater operations – most soldiers would consider high risk. High-risk missions are practically a death wish.
Skif knew that he first had to plan and persuade the generals that if his men could secure a bridgehead (a strategic crossing point) it would be worth sending troops. And that would mean high-risk river missions.
“My phone book is a small cemetery”, said. “Many good and decent people are dead. They were killed on the battlefield. One burned to death in an armored truck. One of them was shot by shells. Someone stepped on a landmine. “Each one died in a different way and there are many.”
JULY – AUGUST 2023
The water receded in July. The Russians and Ukrainians again advanced toward the river from opposite directions, the Russians from the south and the Ukrainians from the north.
Groups from Center 73 explored and advanced along the river. Skif’s unit’s mission was to reclaim an island near the dam, now a web of cracked mud and dead trees. His network of spies in the Kherson region, as well as drones and satellite images, told them where Russian forces had been repositioned.
They disembarked from the boats and entered, walking among the bare branches of the forest among swarms of mosquitoes so strong that their body camera picked up the sound. One of the men activated a cable connected to a grenade and threw himself as far as he could from the Russian explosive.
Just as shrapnel tore through his back, chaos erupted. The wounded Ukrainians crawled toward the unit’s waiting boat 3 kilometers (2 miles) away, as the Russian troops who set the booby trap fired at them. Skif’s men reached the ship, which had a leak, and retreated to its side of the Dnieper. The Russians established their position on the island and it took weeks more for the Ukrainians to expel them.
Then new orders arrived. Go upstream and break through the Russian defenses under a destroyed railway bridge.
The men had a advantage often underestimated about its Russian enemy: many Ukrainians grow up bilingual and understand intercepted Russian communications in real time, while Russian soldiers need a Ukrainian translator.
So when Skif’s unit began picking up Russian radio communications next to the railroad bridge, they immediately understood how many men they were facing and the type of munitions they would face. They made the crossing, avoided the Russians and waited for reinforcements.
That’s when their lead evaporated. In a single battle, the Russians sent Iskander missiles and dozens of drones, launching hundreds of grenades.
“In the air, they had absolute dominance compared to us and held their ground,” he said.
The support was not enough. Ukrainian forces withdrew under heavy fire. More men out of commission and another difficult task ahead.
SEPTEMBER — OCTOBER 2023
Something fortunate happened shortly after that battle. A Russian officer who claimed that he had opposed the war from its beginning was sent to the front at Kherson. He was, he said later, as bad as he had feared.
He contacted Ukrainian intelligence and said he had 11 comrades who felt the same way. The group surrendered to Skif and his men.
The Russians told Skif exactly what he needed to know about his unit on the island they were now tasked with taking, just outside the village of Krynky.
He was sure he could take the island and more with 20 experienced men. But not without the promise of enough support for regular Ukrainian forces to control the territory. Good, the commander said of him. He would get reinforcements…if he returned with unit footage of him in the village raising the Ukrainian flag.
And so it was that, in mid-October, a Ukrainian drone carrying the blue and yellow national flag flew over Krynky just as Skif and his men were heading to the occupied village across the river. They obtained a photo op to prove that the path was clear, sent it to military headquarters and established the bridgehead.
NOVEMBER — DECEMBER 2023
Several Ukrainian brigades were sent to occupy the position and have been there ever since.
But night temperatures are falling well below freezing and Ukrainian forces are severely ill-equipped compared to nearby Russian ones. Maintaining and advancing in winter is much harder on the body and morale of soldiers.
In recent weeks, Russia has sent waves of gliding bombs, essentially huge munitions equipped with gliding devices to allow them to be launched from tens of kilometers (miles) away, as well as swarms of Chinese grenade-launching drones and all-terrain vehicles, according to the Institute for the War Study and the Hudson Institute, two American think tanks that analyze open source images of the area.
At a news conference earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the battle and acknowledged that the Russian forces had retreated “several meters”. But he insisted that Ukrainian forces were fighting futilely and losing far more than they gained.
“I don’t even know why they are doing this,” Putin said.
Despite never fully controlling the territory during the six-month counteroffensive, Russia claims it as its own.
And Ukrainian forces and Center 73 continue fighting until the new year.
“This is our job,” Skif said. “No one knows about it, no one talks about it, and we do it for little reward except to benefit our country.”
(with information from AP)