Even as he was leading troops in a fierce, week-long battle to capture one Russian position, Colonel Viktor Sikoza received disturbing news: The Russians were using this time to build yet another fortress behind it.
“They are still building their defenses,” said Colonel Sikoza. “They keep doing it” even as Ukraine moves forward, albeit slowly, in a high-risk counteroffensive in the south of the country.
The troops of Colonel Sikoza, the commander of the 36th Marines, were the tip of the spear in the push from Ukraine and advanced about five miles into a thicket into Russian lines in southern Ukraine.
Colonel Sikoza is only one commander, but his account is consistent with Ukrainian reports of heavily fortified Russian positions. During the past week, Colonel Sikoza oversaw an attack against a forest that was partially surrounded by swampy, low-lying terrain. Russian troops dug and mined the only ground around that was firm enough to support armored vehicles. The assault, he said, had to take place on foot.
Infantry filtered into the woods and fought in close quarters, he said. “We’re Marines — we’re aggressive,” he said. A company of Russian soldiers, about 80 men, were dug in trenches in the trees, he said. Colonel Sikoza described how a decisive turn came when his soldiers captured two bunkers and a trench line on the edge of the forest, partially cutting off the Russians’ ability to resupply the group and forcing them to retreat.
His soldiers are highly motivated to capture positions, and with them Russian prisoners: In the first month of the war, the 36th Marine Brigade was surrounded in the city of Mariupol and more than 1,000 marines were captured by the Russians. “We want to exchange them for our guys,” Colonel Sikoza said of Russian prisoners.
Colonel Sikoza’s advance in the south is also a personal odyssey. He escaped from the Crimean Peninsula when Russia occupied it in 2014. If the counteroffensive is successful, it could put Ukrainian artillery within range to threaten the isthmus to the peninsula, cutting Russian supply lines.
But it was painfully slow. President Volodymyr Zelensky has conceded that the counteroffensive is not going as fast as some allies had hoped, and US officials have said Ukraine is losing Western-supplied armored vehicles in the minefields.
“For more than a year, the enemy has been entrenched here,” Colonel Sikoza said in an interview at a picnic table in the shade of a walnut tree in the courtyard of his command post near the front. Every minute or so, the bursts of outgoing and incoming artillery rang out.
On the Ukrainian effort to move forward, he acknowledged: “It’s not going to go at the pace we’ve been counting on.”
Before the Ukrainian surge in this place, the Russians completed a third line of defense, said Colonel Sikoza. They put up more concrete tank barriers of a type that the Ukrainians call dragon’s teeth. And they deployed more troops.
There was little he could do about it, he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have enough precision weaponry to hit targets at long range” behind the Russian front lines. The additional defenses, he said, will further slow down Ukraine.
However, Colonel Sikoza’s troops won some successes.
One soldier, who asked to be identified only by his rank and first name for security reasons, Lt Yevhen, said he shot down a Russian attack helicopter using a Javelin anti-tank guided missile, a rare feat with a weapon mostly intended to hit. goals on earth.
And although the brigade operates mostly Soviet legacy artillery systems, it was able to hit a Russian barracks far behind the front line, Ukrainian officers said. A group of Russian soldiers posted a video on social media complaining about poor living conditions and what they said were unreasonable orders from commanders.
Lieutenant Denys Ryabynko, who commands a unit of Grad rocket artillery, was less interested in the complaint than in the distinctive brick building in the background. The Ukrainians were able to identify it in a village behind Russian lines and hit it with a barrage of rockets, he said.
Yurii Shyvala contributed reporting.