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Friday, February 23, 2024

Inside Ukraine’s covert Heart 73, the place clandestine missions form the battle behind the frontline

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KHERSON, Ukraine — Their first battle plan was outdated the second the dam crumbled. So the Ukrainian particular forces officers spent six months adapting their combat to safe a crossing to the opposite aspect 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 could possibly be finished. For one of many officers, nicknamed Skif, that meant a 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 an officer in Heart 73, one among Ukraine’s most elite models of particular forces — frontline scouts, drone operators, underwater saboteurs. Their strike groups are a part of the Particular Operations Forces that run the 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 fundamental 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.

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By late Might, the Heart 73 males had been in place alongside the river’s edge, a few of them nearly inside view of the Kakhovka Dam. They had 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, killing untold numbers of civilians, and washing out the Ukrainian military positions.

“We had been able to cross. After which the dam blew up,” Skif stated. The water rose 20 meters (yards), submerging provide traces, the Russian positions and every little thing else in its path for a whole lot of kilometers. The race was on: Whose forces may seize the islands when the waters receded, and with them full management of the Dnipro?

For many Ukrainians who see them on the streets within the almost abandoned frontline villages of the Kherson area, they’re the fellows in T-shirts and flip-flops — simply common individuals. The locals who refused to evacuate have all turn into accustomed to the sounds of battle, so even their unnerving calm within the face of air raid alarms, close by gunfire and artillery doesn’t appear uncommon.

AP joined one of many clandestine models a number of instances over six months alongside the Dnipro. The frogmen are nocturnal. They remodel 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 not often take credit score for his or her work and Ukrainians not often study their operations. However Russian army statements gleefully and erroneously saying the destruction of Heart 73 are a sign of their effectiveness.

The boys had essentially the most fashionable tools, night-vision goggles, waterproof rifles that may be assembled in a matter of seconds, underwater respiration equipment that produces no floor bubbles, and cloaks that disguise their warmth signature throughout nighttime raids.

It was a matter of days earlier than the beginning of the counteroffensive, and Heart 73 had already situated the Russian positions they might seize on the Dnipro River islands. Skif’s males had been inside earshot of the June 6 explosion that destroyed the Kakhovka Dam, flooded huge stretches of the Kherson area, and upended Skif’s assault plan.

An AP investigation discovered Russian forces had the means, motive and alternative to explode the dam.

Each the Russians and Ukrainians retreated from the river to regroup — Russians to the south and Ukrainians to the north.

Deserted houses, golf equipment, outlets grew to become headquarters, with banks of laptop screens filling the rooms and improvised weapons workshops close by. All the time secretive, incessantly altering places, they meticulously plan each operation, they sleep only some hours through the day with curtains closed.

They wake round sundown, load gear right into a 4X4 and drive to a special level on the riverbank to scout new routes for a counteroffensive, provoke Russian forces into taking pictures at them to pinpoint the enemy’s location, retrieve soggy caches of provides with their boat. Periodically, they captured a Russian soldier caught in a tree or discovered a clutch of landmines washed up on shore.

And so they themselves had been caught. Different particular forces took half in battles in jap Ukraine, the opposite fundamental entrance within the counteroffensive. Skif’s males waited patiently for the water to subside so they may seize positions and lay the groundwork for the arrival of infantry and marines within the Kherson area.

Skif, a veteran of the 2022 battle for Mariupol who had survived 266 days as a prisoner of battle, wished to combat. He had been a part of Heart 73 earlier than Mariupol and rejoined after he was freed in a POW change.

Ukraine created its particular forces in response to Russia’s lightning-fast annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas in 2014, a precursor to the wide-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

“We realized that we had been a lot smaller by way of quantity than our enemy,” stated Oleksandr Kindratenko, a press officer for Particular Operations Forces. “The emphasis was positioned on high quality. These had been speculated to be small teams performing operational or strategic duties.”

He stated they had been skilled and outfitted partly by Europeans, together with these from NATO nations, however their very own current battle expertise means they’re now as a lot academics 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 take into account high-risk. Excessive-risk missions are virtually a dying 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 may imply high-risk river missions.

“My cellphone e book is slightly graveyard,” he stated. “A whole lot of good, respectable individuals are {dead}. They had been killed on the battlefield. One burned to dying in an armored truck. One was shot by howitzers. Anyone stepped on a landmine. Everybody died otherwise, and there are such a lot of of them.”

The water retreated in July. The Russians and Ukrainians superior once more towards the river from reverse instructions, the Russians from the south and Ukrainians from the north.

Teams of Heart 73 scouted and superior alongside the river. The mission for Skif’s unit was to reclaim an island close to the dam, now an internet of cracked mud and {dead} timber. Their community of spies within the Kherson area, in addition to drones and satellite tv for pc photos, advised them the place Russian forces had re-positioned.

They disembarked the boats and moved in, strolling via the naked branches of the forest via swarms of mosquitoes so loud their bodycam picked up the sound. One of many males tripped a wire related to a grenade and flung himself so far as he may away from the Russian explosive.

Simply because the shrapnel pierced his again, mayhem broke out. The injured Ukrainian crawled towards the unit’s ready boat 3 kilometers (2 miles) away, because the Russian troops who set the boobytrap rained gunfire on them. Skif’s males made it to the boat, which sprang a leak, and retreated again to their aspect of the Dnipro. Russians established their place on the island, and it took weeks extra for the Ukrainians to expel them.

Then new orders got here. Go upstream and breach Russian defenses beneath a destroyed railway bridge.

The boys had an often-underestimated benefit over their Russian enemy: Many Ukrainians develop up bilingual and perceive Russian communications intercepted in actual time, whereas Russian troopers want a translator for Ukrainian.

So when Skif’s unit began choosing up Russian radio communications by the railway bridge, they instantly grasped what number of males they had been up in opposition to and the form of munitions they might face. They made the crossing, prevented the Russians, and waited for backup,

That’s when their benefit evaporated. In a single battle, the Russians despatched Iskander missiles and dozens of drones, dropping a whole lot of grenades.

“Within the air, they’d absolute dominance in comparison with us they usually held the bottom,” he stated.

The backup was nowhere close to sufficient. Ukrainian forces retreated beneath heavy fireplace. Extra males out of fee and one other troublesome process forward.

A fortunate factor occurred quickly after that battle. A Russian officer who claimed he’d been against the battle since its starting was despatched to the entrance in Kherson. It was, he later stated, each bit as unhealthy as he’d feared.

He made contact with Ukrainian intelligence and stated he had 11 comrades who felt equally. The group surrendered to Skif and his males.

The Russians advised Skif precisely what he wanted to find out about their unit on the island they had been now tasked with taking, simply exterior 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. Positive, his commander stated. 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 solution to the occupied village throughout the river. They received their photograph op to show the highway was cleared, despatched it to the army headquarters, and established the bridgehead.

A number of Ukrainian brigades had been despatched to carry the place and have been there ever since.

However nighttime temperatures are dipping effectively under freezing, and Ukrainian forces are vastly underequipped in comparison with the Russians close by. Holding and advancing in winter is far tougher 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 accordance with the Institute for the Research of Battle and the Hudson Institute, two American think-tanks analyzing open-source footage from the realm.

In a information convention earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the battle and acknowledged Russian forces had pulled again “a number of meters.” However he insisted Ukrainian forces had been battling pointlessly and dropping way over they gained.

“I don’t even know why they’re doing this,” Putin stated.

Regardless of having by no means totally managed the territory through the six-month counteroffensive, Russia claims it as its personal.

And Ukrainian forces and Heart 73 preserve combating into the brand new 12 months.

“That is our work,” Skif stated. “Nobody is aware of about it, nobody talks about it, and we do it with little reward besides to profit our nation.”


Contributors embody Lori Hinnant in Paris, Felipe Dana in Kherson, and Samya Kullab and Illia Novikov in Kyiv.

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