The mission of the Ukrainian unit was to take one house, in a village that is just a speck on the map, but served as a stronghold for Russian soldiers.
Andriy, an experienced marine, had waited three days with his small assault team – none of whom had seen combat before – while other Ukrainian units crawled through minefields, stormed trenches and cleared a path to the farming village of Urozhaine. Finally, one day last month, the order to move came.
They raced to a predetermined location in an armored personnel carrier and disembarked when explosions and gunfire shook the ground beneath their feet, Andriy and members of his unit said. They drove out or killed the remaining Russians. As night fell, they secured the house, posted guards, and reviewed the day’s tactics to see how they could improve.
In the morning the new order came: take another house.
The months-long campaign to break through heavily fortified Russian lines has been fought on many terrains and in many forms of combat, with artillery duels and drone strikes across the entire frontline in southern Ukraine. But the driving force behind this effort are hundreds of small-scale assault groups, often as few as eight to ten soldiers, each tasked with attacking a single trench, tree line, or house.
With this tactical approach, small villages emerge. Located along paved roads, they facilitate transportation, and the buildings, even those destroyed by shelling, provide some degree of cover. The Russians use them as strongholds; Urozhaine, for example, was surrounded by two trenches and a maze of tunnels that allowed Russian troops to fire at one location and then pop up elsewhere.
It’s a hard way to fight a war – village after village, house after house – with no guarantee of success. However, once taken and secured, the remaining Russian fortifications provide a base for the Ukrainians to plan their next move forward.
This has been the pattern for Ukraine as it tries to move towards the Sea of Azov along two north-south routes, looking for a place to breach and sever the so-called land bridge between Russia and occupied Crimea.
In the West, Ukrainian forces have taken the road to Melitopol; After capturing the key village of Robotyne, they fought fiercely this week near the village of Verbove, the next step in the advance. On Friday, the Ukrainian military said it had pushed three and a half miles past Robotyne, and White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Ukraine had made “remarkable progress” in the preceding 72 hours.
Urozhaine is on a route further east, along a small rural road that leads to Mariupol on the south coast.
The battle for the village would last nine days, with the Russians finally withdrawing on August 19 under a hail of Ukrainian artillery fire. It was a small but necessary step. As with Robotyne, securing it meant Ukrainian forces had broken through the Russians’ first layer of defence. Just as importantly, they’ve been holding out for two weeks now.
The Ukrainians still have some 60 miles of difficult roads to go before they can reach the coast, and at least one heavily fortified Russian line of defense still stands in their way. The Russians put up a fierce resistance, protected by entrenched positions, minefields and air superiority. The Marines expect the fight to be bloody and slow.
“Russians have more artillery, more tanks, more drones and more people,” said an experienced Marine named Denis. “And they also reinforce very well – when they arrive somewhere – be it a settlement, a forest belt or just a field.”
The Ukrainians ordered a team from The New York Times to visit Marines fighting on the road to Mariupol several times in August on the condition that the journalists not reveal the exact locations, the full names and ranks of the soldiers and certain operational details. .
Everyday success is measured in yards instead of kilometers. But dozens of these attacks have been taking place every day for weeks, and when added up, they add up to gains that Ukraine says will create increasing problems for overstretched Russian forces.
In more than a dozen interviews over the past few days, troops involved in combat have expressed great confidence that they can break through Russian lines.
“After the first and second line, there will be a straight road to the sea, no more reinforcements,” said Maksym, another veteran Marine who fought in Urozhaine. “We will move like rockets.”
The Marines are fighting on a line that runs south along the T0158, a rural road that winds its way through the Mokri Yali river valley, where the Ukrainians have recaptured a series of villages since launching their counter-offensive in June. The next main target is Staromlynivka, about 20 kilometers from where the campaign started.
The Russians are rushing to gather reinforcements to halt the advance, Ukrainian soldiers said.
Their description of the battle at Uroshaine was supported by raw Ukrainian drone footage viewed by The Times. Key details also matched accounts posted on social media by Russian soldiers and bloggers.
Before attacking the Russians in a village, the Ukrainians fight to control the elevated positions on the flanks, hoping to make the Russian positions untenable and limit the house-to-house fighting.
Each settlement presents many of the same challenges, so the Marines map out each attack and practice as much as possible before launching an attack.
“The most important thing is that we keep the first street,” said Denis. “Then we send an extra drone that looks at every building. Our soldiers are divided into two groups: the firing group and the maneuver group. The fire group shoots down Russians hiding on several floors of the building, after which the maneuver group clears the building. So we move from house to house.”
If the attack fails, he said, they will call in artillery strikes and destroy the house.
The Russians are also adapting, the Marines said, including using new tactics to make the already treacherous minefields even more deadly.
For example, they will cover a meadow filled with mines with a flammable agent. Once the Ukrainians get to work clearing an opening, the Russians will drop a grenade from a drone, creating a sea of fire and explosions.
Mining makes control of paved roads essential; they are the safest routes because mines are easier to spot and remove. The Russians know this and have set up defenses along the T0158, with concrete bunkers for machine guns. Russian drones are constantly monitoring the roads.
While Denis spoke a few miles from the line of contact, a unit practiced an attack on a house. There is no shortage of battered buildings to conduct such exercises, so they often move locations.
But Russian drones picked up the assembled soldiers and fired missiles at them. The soldiers heard the whistle of the incoming missiles and had seconds to take cover. They dispersed when the Russians fired another volley. A hail of missiles crashed around the Marines, but no one was injured.
A few days later, another group prepared for their next attack along the road to Mariupol. They were among a recent influx of Marines who had completed their training in Britain but had not yet seen combat.
A trainer named Vasyl, 53, conducted the drills and barked orders as the new soldiers fired live bullets and rocket-propelled grenades for the first time. Time is a luxury they don’t have with the fighting raging, he said, “so we’re doing our best to get them done as soon as possible.”
An important part of forming a successful assault unit, the soldiers said, was finding the most motivated recruits willing to race into a cauldron of destruction.
Like other Ukrainian units, the Marines consists of a mix of professional fighters, volunteers and mobilized conscripts. About 70 percent are from the local area — including the occupied city of Mariupol — and soldiers believe this gives them a clear advantage over an enemy they believe is fighting for a paycheck and holding positions for fear of punishment if they retreat.
Andriy and Maksym, both 35 years old, were experienced soldiers and accompanied the new recruits.
“Of course we suffered some losses, not within our platoon, but within the brigade,” said Maksym. “It’s war, you know.”
Still, the Marines achieved their objective in Uroshaine and were one small step closer to the sea.
“It’s also important for self-confidence and motivation,” said Maksym. “A lot of the guys were new, it was their first fight. And now they know what’s going on.”
Gaelle Girbes And Dimitri Yatsenko contributed reporting from the front line.