A bottle of syrup made from Siberian berries, legions of dirty socks and a military-issue tea bag stamped with “For Victory!”
For Ukrainian soldiers, one advantage of achieving at least creeping progress in the now month-long counteroffensive in southern Ukraine is to appropriate ready-made fortresses from the retreating Russians, who in months of preparations dug deep, well-protected trenches.
For the Ukrainians, oddly enough, it also means living and fighting in positions long held by the Russians – with a huge spread of military debris and personal belongings of Russian soldiers scattered around.
“It’s not very nice,” said Pvt. Maksim, a soldier with Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, who collected a number of curiosities, including what he believes was a talisman: several bullets covered in sparkles and attached to a key ring.
“It is our country but it is not very comfortable to be here,” said the soldier, who like the other soldiers gave only his first name and rank for security reasons. “It doesn’t feel like home.”
In early June, Ukrainian forces, including thousands of troops trained and equipped by the United States and other Western allies, began a counteroffensive aimed at driving a wedge through Russian-occupied southern Ukraine. Waiting were thousands of Russian troops stationed in miles of trenches and other fortifications amid tank traps and thousands and thousands of mines.
The Ukrainian troops attack in at least three places on the Russian defense front. At their furthest advance, they pushed south to form a thicket about five miles into the defensive lines.
Ukrainian commanders want to reach the Sea of Azov, some 55 miles away across open plains that offer little cover. If they succeed, they will split the Russian-occupied south into two zones, cutting Russia’s land bridge to the occupied Crimea Peninsula and greatly compromising Russia’s ability to resupply its forces further west.
As they advanced, the Ukrainians seized Russian trench lines, bunkers, and firing ranges in abandoned buildings, but under continuous artillery bombardment they had little time to dispose of their enemy’s refuse and abandoned clothing, body armor, ponchos, bedding, and leftover military rations.
Take, for example, the village of Novodarivka, on the plains of the Zaporizhzhia region in southern Ukraine, south of the city of Orikhiv. A month after soldiers with Ukraine’s 110th Territorial Defense Brigade and other units retook it, the village is still littered with the detritus of the occupying forces.
In the baking sun on a recent day, the village seemed deserted, with the occasional military vehicle rumbling down the single dirt road between destroyed, abandoned houses, kicking up dust.
Amid the boom of artillery shelling, Ukrainian soldiers crouched down in the captured Russian trenches. A burned-out Russian tank lay on the main road of the village; in a field nearby, two detonated US-supplied mine-resistant vehicles called MaxxPros.
One bad job was to take the remains of Ukrainian soldiers who died defending the town in the first months of the war when the Russian troops advanced quickly.
Seven bodies have been lying in the area since April 2022, said one of the soldiers, Lieutenant Volodymyr.
The Ukrainians sometimes flew drones over the village while it was occupied, to make sure the Russians didn’t move the bodies. On Wednesday, they finally had the chance to take them. “They were just skeletons” that should have been identified by their DNA, said Lt. Volodymyr.
As for the Russian dead, he added, the Ukrainians recovered those who could be removed without risk and covered others in piles of dirt to try to control the bad smell. However, a terrible stench wafted around the trenches, and swarms of flies buzzed everywhere.
In an abandoned house, Russian soldiers scratched into the plaster walls the names of their hometowns or regions: Vladikavkaz, a city in southern Russia, and Primorye, a region on the Pacific coast, near Japan.
Pvt. Maksim, interviewed in the trenches, collected a small pile of curiosities left behind, including the mora syrup made in Yakutia, a region in northern Siberia. Gesturing to the “For Victory!” brand of Russian tea, he said of its former Russian owner, “he didn’t have time to drink it.”
Speaking of the back-and-forth nature of the fighting, Pvt. Maksim said, “We push them away, they push us back, we push them, they push us, and so on,” adding: “They had a lot of time to dig.”
Soldiers said in interviews that the slow progress was to be expected, given the minefields, trenches and open countryside.
The 110th Territorial Defense Brigade, in contrast to the newly trained and equipped units deployed specifically for the counteroffensive, has been fighting in southern Ukraine for more than a year.
One soldier with the 110th, who identified himself as Sgt. Igor said his troop crawled forward to the relative safety of tree lines between fields to attack Russian trenches, moving in small bursts of a few dozen or a hundred yards at a time. Such slow advances were preferable to all-out attacks, he said.
“We have to crawl forward little by little, with infantry, and break them that way,” Sgt. said Igor. “Crawl forward, fight them, then dig in again.”
Time must pass, he said, for the advancing Ukrainian soldiers trained by Kyiv’s Western allies to become adept at fighting in the open countryside.
Soldiers deployed in the area develop a finely tuned ear for the whistles and blasts of outgoing and incoming artillery, he said, adding, “You hear it and should know in a second whether to fall or not.”
Soldiers must steel themselves to maneuver in the trenches and fire their guns at enemy troops approaching in an attack, even if bullets are zipping overhead, he said.
“Training abroad is not the same as real combat,” he said. “They are gaining combat experience now,” he added, and as they do, the pace of the advance could increase. U.S. officials said Ukrainian commanders were reassessing tactics after the offensive’s slow start and troopers’ terrifying forays into minefields.
Green recruits are demoralized when fellow soldiers are wounded or killed, Sgt. said Igor. “Their morale is affected quickly,” he said.
“The soldiers will learn,” he added. “It’s complicated. And yes, it is going slowly. But importantly, it goes.”
Yurii Shyvala and Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.