KHERSON, Ukraine — Their first battle plan was outdated the second the dam crumbled. So the Ukrainian particular forces officers spent six months adapting their battle to safe a crossing to the opposite facet of the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine.
Nevertheless it wasn’t sufficient simply to cross the river. They wanted backup to carry it. And for that, they wanted proof that it might be finished. For one of many officers, nicknamed Skif, that meant a Ukrainian flag — and a photograph op.
Skif, Ukrainian shorthand for the nomadic Scythian individuals who based an empire on what’s now Crimea, strikes just like the camouflaged amphibian that he’s: Calculating, deliberate, till the time to strike.
He’s a Middle 73 officer, certainly one of Ukraine’s most elite items of particular forces — water operations specialists, frontline scouts, drone operators, underwater saboteurs. They’re a part of the Particular Operations Forces that run partisans in occupied territories, sneak into Russian barracks to plant bombs and put together the bottom for reclaiming territory seized by Russia.
Their mission on the extra dynamic of the 2 major fronts within the six-month counteroffensive displays most of the issues of Ukraine’s broader effort. It’s been one of many few counteroffensive successes for the Ukrainian military.
By late Could, the Middle 73 males have been in place alongside the river’s edge, some nearly inside view of the Kakhovka Dam. They have been inside vary of the Russian forces who had managed the dam and land throughout the Dnipro because the first days after the February 2022 full-scale invasion. And each side knew Ukraine’s looming counteroffensive had its sights on management of the river as the important thing to reclaim the occupied south.
Within the operation’s opening days, on June 6, an explosion destroyed the dam, sending a wall of reservoir water downstream and washing out the Ukrainian military positions. An AP investigation discovered proof Russia was accountable.
“We have been able to cross. After which the dam blew up,” Skif mentioned. The water rose 20 meters (yards), submerging Skif’s provide strains, the Russian positions and every thing else in its path. The race was on: Whose forces may seize the islands when the waters receded, and with them full management of the Dnipro?
AP joined one of many clandestine items a number of occasions over six months alongside the Dnipro. The frogmen are nocturnal. They rework themselves from nondescript civilians into elite fighters, some in wetsuits and a few in boats. Within the morning, when their operations finish, they’re again to anonymity.
They hardly ever take credit score for his or her work. Ukraine created the particular companies operations in response to Russia’s lightning-fast annexation of Crimea in 2014, a precursor to the widescale invasion of Ukraine eight years later.
“We realized that we have been a lot smaller by way of quantity than our enemy,” mentioned Oleksandr Kindratenko, a press officer for Particular Operations Forces. “The emphasis was positioned on high quality. These have been alleged to be small teams performing operational or strategic duties.”
He mentioned they have been skilled and outfitted partly by Europeans, together with these from NATO international locations, however their very own current battle expertise means they’re now as a lot lecturers as college students.
Duties that the unit considers routine – scouting as near Russians as potential, planting explosives beneath their noses, underwater operations – most troopers would contemplate high-risk. Excessive-risk missions are virtually a demise want.
Skif knew he first needed to plan and persuade the generals that if his males may safe a bridgehead – a strategic crossing level – it could be worthwhile to ship troops. And that might imply high-risk river missions.
However a fortunate factor occurred in early autumn. A Russian officer who claimed he’d been against the struggle since its starting was despatched to the entrance in Kherson. It was, he later mentioned, each bit as dangerous as he’d feared.
He made contact with Ukrainian intelligence and mentioned he had 11 comrades who felt equally. The group surrendered collectively and Skif ended up taking custody of the Russian officer and his males.
The surrendered Russians informed him precisely what he wanted to find out about their unit on the little island they have been now tasked with taking, simply outdoors the village of Krynky.
He was certain he may take the island and extra with 20 skilled males. However not with out the promise of enough backup so Ukrainian common forces may maintain the territory. Superb, his commander mentioned. He’d get the backup – if he returned with footage of his unit within the village hoisting the Ukrainian flag.
And that’s how, in mid-October, a Ukrainian drone carrying the nationwide blue and yellow flag got here to fly above Krynky at simply the second Skif and his males made their strategy to the occupied village throughout the river. They bought their picture op, despatched it to the navy headquarters, and established the bridgehead.
A number of Ukrainian brigades have been despatched to carry the place and have been there ever since, together with these males from Middle 73 nonetheless in form to battle.
However nighttime temperatures are dipping effectively beneath freezing, and Ukrainian forces are vastly underequipped in comparison with the Russians close by. Holding and advancing in winter is way more durable on troopers’ our bodies and their morale.
In current weeks, Russia has despatched waves of glide bombs — primarily monumental munitions retrofitted with gliding equipment to permit them to be launched from dozens of kilometers (miles) away, in addition to swarms of grenade-launching drones and Chinese language all-terrain autos, in line with the Institute for the Examine of Warfare and the Hudson Institute, two American think-tanks analyzing open-source footage from the realm.
However Ukrainian forces and Middle 73 maintain preventing.
“My cellphone e-book is slightly graveyard,” Skif mentioned one night, coordinating over the radio his males on one other boat mission. “That is our work. Nobody is aware of about it, nobody talks about it, and we do it with little reward besides to learn our nation.”
Contributors embrace Lori Hinnant in Paris, Felipe Dana in Kherson, and Samya Kullab and Illia Novikov in Kyiv.