April 16, 2024

In a thicket of trees between two vast farm fields, a plywood trapdoor built into the forest floor opened to reveal stairs leading underground.

Inside was a subterranean bunker, cut into the black earth, where Ukrainian troops from a mortar unit awaited coordinates for their next target. The men squeezed past one another down a shoulder-width dirt corridor lit with LED strips, staring at tablet computers showing a live drone feed of the terrain outside. Blast waves from artillery shells and rockets shook the bunker, and a radio crackled with a warning of incoming Russian helicopters.

But the soldiers were focused on their screens, specifically on a line of Russian troops and heavy equipment dug in a short distance away and marked with red plus signs.

That would be their target.

“The guys dug all this by hand, and they want to fight, they want to shoot,” said the unit commander, a 32-year-old with a braided ponytail who uses the call sign Shuler. “We just want to kick them off our land, that’s it.”

For the soldiers of the 110th Territorial Defense Brigade, to which the mortar unit is attached, this is a critical moment in the war.

With fighting in the eastern Donbas region settling into a bloody stalemate, their patch of the Zaporizhzhia region of southeastern Ukraine could prove to be the next big theater, a focal point of a long-awaited counteroffensive. Ukraine is under pressure to show some measure of success in bolstering morale for soldiers and civilians, shoring up Western support and reclaiming stolen territory.

The fighting here is intensely personal. Most of the soldiers of the 110th Brigade come from areas now occupied by Russia. Shuler’s unit was forced to retreat in the early days of the war, which began in February 2022, and his parents remain in occupied Melitopol, roughly 80 miles from the bunker.

Over the past year, they have slowly turned the tide, halting the Russian advance and building a network of defensive positions that the Russian military, for all its superiority in weaponry and numbers, has been unable to crack.

“We really know this location — every bush,” said Col. Oleksandr Ihnatiev, a veteran of Ukraine’s special operations forces who took command of the brigade in April last year. “From the beginning of the war, we in our strip have not lost one position or post.”

No one knows where or when the counteroffensive will kick off. It could be weeks from now, when the summer sun dries the spring mud into a hard pavement ideal for the new Western-supplied tanks and armored personnel carriers soon to enter the fight.

Or it may have already begun — for good reason, the Ukrainians will not say — with the recent probing attacks on Russian positions east of the Dnipro River in the neighboring Kherson Region, or with the rotation of new units to Zaporizhzhia. Recently, the lines here were bolstered by the arrival of an elite, British-trained artillery unit that had previously been deployed outside Bakhmut.

A military push by Ukraine in the Zaporizhzhia region makes strategic sense, military officials and experts say. By punching south through the Russian lines and driving hard toward the Sea of Azov, Ukraine’s military could split Russian forces in half, severing important supply lines and dealing a blow to the war aims of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin.

Zaporizhzhia makes up the heart of a land bridge that Russian forces seized in the early weeks of the war that links Russian territory to the occupied Crimean Peninsula. It is one of the Kremlin’s few tangible successes in Ukraine.

But the combat challenges are daunting. Ukraine’s success will require overcoming heavily armed defensive lines that Russian troops have spent the past 10 months reinforcing, as well as its own military’s shortcomings. Supplies of artillery and air-defense ordnance are dwindling. American officials have said that it is unlikely the counteroffensive will result in a significant shift in momentum in Kyiv’s favor.

After 14 months of nonstop fighting, Ukrainian soldiers are exhausted.

Shuler’s hands now shake uncontrollably, the result of a concussion suffered when a tank round exploded near him at the beginning of the war.

A history teacher before the invasion, Shuler views the looming fight within a broader context. He wears a patch with a Star of David on his arm, a reminder of his great-grandparents who died in the Holocaust. His Jewish grandfather had to change his name to sound more Russian when the Soviets took control of his native western Ukraine at the end of World War II.

Now, Shuler must hide his face, refusing to be photographed for fear that his parents could suffer reprisals from the occupiers.

“Imagine the situation, you’re alive, but your life has been taken away,” he said. “We’ll have nowhere to return to if we don’t stop this, if we don’t end it, if we don’t win.”

Flowers Blooming Alongside Corpses

At the far end of the bunker, closest to the Russian lines, soldiers rolled open another trapdoor — this one made of metal and plastic sheeting, and built on a track — exposing the muzzle of an Iranian-made HM16 mortar to a blue sky. It was a demonstration of the ingenuity that has kept the smaller, weaker Ukrainian armed forces in the fight.

Though practically under the Russians’ noses, the mortar team is largely invisible in the underground shelter, even to the Russian drones that are constantly buzzing overhead.

“Postril!” a soldier yelled. Fire! A fat mortar round shot in the direction of a group of about 10 Russian soldiers that a reconnaissance team had identified in a nearby tree line. The shock wave from the mortar’s report reverberated down the length of the bunker, compressing lungs and rattling teeth.

“If we end up hitting it, some will be turned into meat,” said the unit’s 36-year-old technical sergeant, who uses the call sign Shamil. “We’ll scare them a bit.”

A few seconds later, a puff of smoke erupted on the screen of Shamil’s tablet. They overshot and would have to try again.

Shuler complained that their Iranian weapon, which he believed had been confiscated by the United States and delivered to Ukraine, was less accurate than Western-built models. And the Pakistani and Soviet-era shells they have in their arsenal, while sufficient in quantity, at times failed to detonate.

Still, the 110th Brigade is in far better shape than it had been at the start of the war, when it had only about 100 men to fight the Russian forces who poured into the Zaporizhzhia region from Crimea after Mr. Putin announced the invasion.

A young battalion commander with the brigade who uses the call sign Polyak said he and his men initially had nothing but shovels to defend themselves with. “The first day, we had to move like caterpillars,” Polyak said. “We couldn’t even stand up; the Grads were never ending. And gradually, we crawled and crawled and crawled.”

The intensity of that early fighting is evident in a swath of annihilated villages that stretches along the Zaporizhzhia front. Mangled armored vehicles sit parked between burned-out houses. Soldiers said they had tried to collect most of the bodies of those killed in the fighting, but on a recent day, the skeletonized remains of a Russian soldier, still dressed in a green camouflage uniform with a hammer and sickle belt buckle, lay in the yard of an abandoned home, red tulips and yellow daffodils blooming nearby.

Colonel Ihnatiev, the brigade’s commander, said his men alone had killed more than 900 Russian soldiers in more than a year of fighting and had destroyed some 150 armored vehicles. The 110th Brigade, he said, now has several thousand soldiers, the majority of whom had never touched a weapon before the war began.

“It was not easy,” Colonel Ihnatiev said. “There was a lot of crying and whining, but we were able to mold the tears and the snot into character.”

To press forward in any counteroffensive, he said, his men would need additional armor and reinforcements from other units. Some of that aid has already begun to arrive.

Ready for More Action

The incoming shells howled overhead, their explosions getting closer and closer as Russian troops stationed about a mile away adjusted their cannon’s trajectory.

But the Ukrainian artillery team positioned to return fire was unfazed. The men joked as they loaded shells into their Australian-made howitzer in the shade of a cherry tree, swatting away bees that hummed around its white spring blooms. They fired. And fired again.

After the fifth round, the Russian side fell silent.

These Ukrainian soldiers are part of an elite, British-trained artillery unit attached to an airborne assault brigade. A month ago, they were stationed near Bakhmut burning through a thousand shells a week as they mowed down waves of Russian infantry. And before that, they took part in the liberation of Kherson.

Given their skills and experience, it was puzzling to some of them why they were sent to this corner of the war.

“Maybe it is connected with our offensive. Maybe it is a distraction maneuver,” said a junior sergeant with the unit, named Maksim, who goes by the call sign Stayer. “We don’t see the whole picture.”

The Russian military clearly believes that the Zaporizhzhia region is critical to the war. After a winter hiatus, Russian forces have begun to pound Ukrainian military positions, as well as cities and towns, with an array of weaponry, including artillery shells, guided missiles and Iranian-made explosive drones. This could be a sign that Russian forces are preparing for their own assault — or anticipating a Ukrainian one.

Stayer, 39, said his men were ready for more action.

“When there’s an offensive, there’s movement, it’s fun,” he said. “You’re shooting at them, they’re shooting at you.”

In Bakhmut, there was never even time to sleep, Stayer said. The muck and fatigue of battle had so changed his appearance that his iPhone’s face recognition system ceased to work for a bit, he said. Inside his phone was a horror show: drone photographs of fields littered with Russian bodies blown apart by the mortars his team had fired at them.

In Zaporizhzhia, Stayer has enough time in between artillery volleys to run 10 kilometers every other day and indulge his passion for coffee, which he has delivered from a specialty roaster called Mad Heads in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.

The counteroffensive, though, is on everyone’s minds, he said. Using a rock, Stayer drew on the wet ground what he thought the outlines of an operation might entail: a push south toward the port city of Berdiansk, accompanied by feints on the eastern front and perhaps an attempt by Ukrainian forces stationed in Kherson to cross the Dnipro River to attack Russian forces dug in on the eastern bank.

“It all looks very simple,” he said. “We’re waiting to see what our high command comes up with, some kind of clever plan.”

For Civilians, Renewed Hope

A pensioner who longs to return home to his ailing sister. An exiled small-town mayor who is already drawing up plans to rebuild once the Russians are gone.

Since the beginning of the war, the city of Zaporizhzhia, the regional capital, has been a refuge for thousands who have fled the Russian takeover of towns and villages farther south. But for many, it has never become a home.

Now like never before, talk of a counteroffensive has begun to buoy hopes that they will someday go back.

“I think our guys will get going soon and give it to them right in the …” Volodymyr Mateiko, a retired truck driver, said, finishing the sentence with a vulgarity.

Mr. Mateiko, 65, left Melitopol, ? large occupied city about 75 miles south of Zaporizhzhia, in August, after Russian troops entered his home with guns and stole his television, computer and other belongings. He left behind his ailing older sister and the graves of his parents and wife, and settled in a shelter for exiles like him in Zaporizhzhia, where he has a bottom bunk in a large communal room and not much else.

“Here, I don’t know who I am,” he said. “A bum maybe, a refugee. I don’t know.”

The regional government estimates that there are about 230,000 people living in Zaporizhzhia who have been displaced by the war.

Though excited by the prospect of returning home, many worry about the destruction any counteroffensive might wreak.

Irina Lipka, the exiled mayor of Molochansk, a small town north of Melitopol, said Ukrainian forces had already begun carrying out strikes on Russian bases in the town, including a former school where she was a teacher, something she described as painful but necessary.

“This is war,” Ms. Lipka said. “There is no other way to de-occupy.”

Scanning the Night Sky for Drones

When darkness falls over the Zaporizhzhia front, the challenges ahead for the Ukrainian Army become starkly apparent. On a recent night, Russian troops unleashed volley after volley of strikes from multiple-launch rocket systems called Grads, which briefly lit up the sky. In response, the Ukrainian side managed to shoot off an occasional artillery shell.

Watching all of this from across a farm field, members of an air-defense team with the 110th Brigade cursed as they sucked down cigarettes. Armed with a machine gun on the back of a pickup truck, the team was posted to guard against explosive Shahed drones, which Russia launches from nearby occupied territory.

Even the most dedicated soldiers now admit that the war is beginning to wear on them. A private named Vitaly said a friend, who had returned home from Israel to fight, was recently killed near Bakhmut. The unit’s commander was also dead.

Dogs barked incessantly, and a Russian Orlan surveillance drone soared overhead, the light from its thermal camera nearly indistinguishable from the stars in the sky. There was a flash, and the whoosh of several incoming shells sent the team diving into the mud.

“Of course, after a year and two months of war, everyone is tired,” Vitaly said. “But without victory, no one is going to leave here.”

As midnight approached, clouds moved in, obscuring the stars and a crescent moon, making it easier for Russian drones to escape detection. Across the field, the battle still raged in the dark.

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