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Ukraine’s Forces, Dug In on Entrance Line, Struggle to Repel Russia

ZAPORIZKA REGION, Ukraine — The day after the conflict started, after their unit was almost worn out in a missile strike, Ukrainian Sgt. Oleksandr Gorvat offered his girlfriend and commanding officer, First Lt. Olena Petyak, a hoop he had twisted collectively from wire and requested for her hand in marriage.

“Formally we’re not alleged to serve collectively, however we’re not formally married,” he defined on Friday, amid the whoosh of Grad rockets being fired at close by Russian positions. “That’s for after the conflict. As quickly as we win.”

Along with their unit, the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, the couple, each 25, had been dug right into a frontline place within the Zaporizka area of south-central Ukraine, east of the Dnipro River and solely about two miles from the place Russian forces had been trying to overrun extra territory.

Fierce preventing was underway on Friday throughout a band of southeastern Ukraine, in and round main cities like Polohy, Orikhiv and Vasylivka, which is on the banks of the Dnipro. It fell to the troops of the 128th to forestall Russian forces from pushing farther north towards the essential industrial metropolis of Zaporizhzhia, simply 20 miles north of Vasylivka on the river.

The Kremlin has achieved one in all its strategic objectives, seizing a strip of land alongside the Azov Sea, linking the Donbas area within the east, now the main target of the conflict, with Crimea, the peninsula President Vladimir V. Putin invaded and annexed in 2014. The one vital pocket of resistance remaining is a sprawling metal mill advanced within the ruined port metropolis of Mariupol, the place Ukrainian fighters and civilians are in underground bunkers, beneath heavy bombardment.

However the Russians had been trying this week to broaden that ribbon of territory, pushing north from the coast towards Zaporizhzhia. Different Russian forces had been pushing west by means of Donbas, the place on Friday among the heaviest fight was being waged across the metropolis of Sievierodonetsk and the city of Popasna. Moscow’s military was additionally advancing southward from the town of Izium. Altogether, the entrance line is about 300 miles lengthy.

Moscow’s separatist proxies in Donbas, backed by Russian gear and troops, have held a part of the area since 2014, and Russia has stated that it goals to broaden its territory there. How far Mr. Putin will go is unclear, however the Kremlin seems intent on trapping a lot of the Ukrainian navy in a pincer and destroying it.

Lieutenant Petyak, who’s second in charge of the brigade, stated the objective within the Zaporizhzhia area — the southwestern a part of that entrance line — was not simply to carry the Russians at a standstill however to push them again.

“The enemy is consistently firing with artillery, tanks, Grads, and aviation in our path,” she stated. “They need to knock out this part, however they received’t be capable to do it as a result of we’re right here. Quite the opposite they will have to surrender their positions as a result of I’m sure that someday quickly we are going to push ahead and take the rest of the land that they’ve been in a position to quickly occupy.”

That will show a problem, even for the Ukrainian forces, which have stunned navy analysts {and professional} troopers with their fierce and efficient protection for the reason that begin of the conflict.

After Mr. Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces based mostly within the Crimean Peninsula, among the nation’s most expert and well-equipped, lunged north, gobbling up territory in southern Ukraine each within the path of Kherson, west of the Dnipro, and east towards Mariupol.

Early within the morning of Feb. 24, the troopers of the 128th brigade discovered the conflict had begun when a Russian cruise missile hit their base, simply lacking the barracks the place they slept. The troops had been in a position to escape into the close by woods.

It was the subsequent day, as they scrambled to regroup and be a part of the fight in opposition to the invading Russians, that Sergeant Gorvat proposed.

At first the brigade was deployed within the neighborhood of Melitopol, a southern metropolis about halfway between Crimea and Zaporizhzhia. However they’ve been pushed again almost 70 miles to the north. They’re now entrenched in a patch of woods wedged between wheat fields which are vivid inexperienced with spring progress.

Ukrainians who reside within the coastal territory that Russia has seized proceed to surge north looking for refuge in Ukrainian-held lands. Convoys of automobiles and buses, laden with suitcases, arrive commonly on the car parking zone of a house items retailer in Zaporizhzhia. Many arrive with unsettling tales of the Russian occupation.

“It’s complete lawlessness,” stated Natalya Gorbova, who arrived in Zaporizhzhia on Thursday together with her 17-year previous son, Egor. They’d fled Melitopol, whose mayor was kidnapped by Russian forces and dragged from his workplace with a bag over his head. He was solely launched after Ukraine agreed to a prisoner swap.

“When you keep house, it’s high-quality,” Ms. Gorbova stated, “however there are these guys strolling round with weapons who do no matter they need.”

In Ukrainian territory, she stated, “it’s simpler to breathe.”

Ukraine’s entrance line positions buzz with surveillance drones that Russian forces use to focus on their artillery. At one level on Friday, Capt. Vitaliy Nevinsky, the commander of the 128th, dispersed a bunch of troopers chatting shut collectively round a campfire, lest a drone direct an artillery strike into the center of their gathering.

The primary weeks of the conflict had been a baptism by hearth for the 128th. At one level, Captain Nevinsky defined, his forces had been surrounded and needed to punch their method by means of the Russian strains. Captain Nevinsky, 25, stated he was using on a tank, protecting the unit’s escape when it was hit by a shell. He suffered shrapnel wounds and a concussion, however returned to the entrance strains two weeks later.

His brigade is best geared up now, he stated, with antitank missiles supplied by the Individuals and the British, in addition to Stinger antiaircraft missiles and different superior weapons techniques. These have helped sluggish the Russian forces down, he stated. This week, he stated, the brigade has taken out two Russian T-72 tanks that strayed too near their positions.

“We’re on our personal land,” he stated. “We’re defending ourselves and knocking out this horde, this invasion of our territory.”

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