In an undated photo, an artillery piece belonging to Ukraine's 53rd Separate Mechanized Brigade fires during combat operations. Photo courtesy General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine via Facebook.
KYIV, Ukraine — Last week, a 36-year-old Ukrainian army sergeant named Volodymyr Kryvenko was wounded by a Russian mortar in eastern Ukraine. It was his second combat wound since Russia’s full-scale war began in February.
Known as a “dinosaur” among his fellow comrades in the 9th Company of Ukraine’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade, Kryvenko is among the old breed of Ukrainian soldiers with prior combat experience. Between surgical procedures to remove shrapnel from his body over the past few days, he’s kept close tabs via social media on Ukrainian counteroffensives unfolding in southern and eastern Ukraine. With Ukrainian forces rapidly gaining back ground, and with Russian forces largely on the defensive, Kryvenko is anxious to rejoin his unit near the city of Soledar.
“It is very difficult in my direction. It’s hot there, very hot … but I immediately need to go back to war,” Kryvenko told Coffee or Die Magazine. “In several weeks, the initiative will be with the Ukrainian army.”
Ukrainian troops raised their country’s blue-and-yellow flag over the eastern city of Balakliya on Thursday, Sept. 8, marking the end of six months of Russian occupation. This key victory comes less than two weeks after Ukrainian forces first went on the offensive against Russian units in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region.
“The Ukrainian army took advantage of the mistake of the Russians on some small areas of the front. And this is good, because it is better to die in an attack than to die while repelling assaults,” Kryvenko said.
On Thursday, Ukrainian Brig. Gen. Oleksiy Hromov announced that this week’s eastern counterattack had advanced some 30 miles into Russian-occupied terrain near the eastern city of Kharkiv, liberating about 20 settlements and 270 square miles of territory. Ukrainian units are now reportedly pushing toward the city of Kupyansk, a strategic rail and road hub with a prewar population of about 30,000. Should Ukrainian forces retake Kupyansk, they will sever a vital logistical artery to Russian forces based in the city of Izyum.
As of this article’s publication, unconfirmed reports were circulating on Ukrainian social media channels suggesting the forward edge of Ukrainian forces had already reached Izyum.
Based on open-source intelligence reports, the last two days of combat have been devastating for Russia’s armed forces in eastern Ukraine. According to the open-source intelligence site Oryx, which tallies destroyed Russian equipment, over the past two days Russia has lost some 12 tanks, 13 armored personnel carriers, 15 artillery pieces, two air defense systems, and 19 infantry fighting vehicles.
As the counteroffensives continue, Ukrainian military sources report hundreds of Russian dead. Unconfirmed videos posted to social media show what appears to be heavy Russian casualties. Some videos show grateful area residents welcoming the Ukrainian troops who liberated Balakliya and other Ukrainian settlements previously under Russian control.
“It is impossible to watch without tears how the real liberators meet our people who have been in the darkness of occupation since the first days of the war,” Ukrainian journalist Andriy Tsaplienko, well known in Ukraine for his war zone reports, wrote Friday on Facebook.
Marking a potentially major win for Ukraine, multiple unconfirmed reports claim that a Russian army officer seen in a video of Russian prisoners of war may have been Lt. Gen. Andrei Sychevoi, commander of Russia’s Group of Forces West. If rumors of his capture are true, Sychevoi would be the highest-ranking Russian officer to be taken prisoner in combat since World War II.
A former beer factory worker and a graduate of Ukraine’s National Academy of Internal Affairs, Kryvenko first volunteered for military service in December 2014 following Russia’s unconventional invasion of eastern Ukraine earlier that year. Leaving his pregnant wife behind, Kryvenko served in combat in eastern Ukraine as a sniper in Ukraine’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade. During daily Russian shelling in the front-line town of Pisky in the summer of 2015, he was known to casually stand outside, bare-chested, while sipping his morning coffee.
After leaving the military in 2016, Kryvenko opened his own coffee stand in Kyiv and named it 93 Grains in honor of his former unit. Despite his best efforts to move on and live a normal life, Kryvenko, with his family’s support, volunteered again for military service after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. Although he has survived multiple close calls with Russian artillery and always managed to stay in the fight, many of Kryvenko’s fellow “dinosaurs” have been killed or wounded in action since February, thereby thinning his unit of soldiers with prior combat experience.
The combat near Soledar has been particularly brutal, Kryvenko said, including a back-and-forth exchange of territorial gains and losses by both sides. Moreover, logistical shortfalls have periodically forced Kryvenko and his fellow Ukrainian troops to scrounge weapons and ammunition off Russian dead.
All too often, fresh replacements arrive without proper training and equipment, Kryvenko told Coffee or Die. After a hurried basic training, these novice soldiers immediately enter a cauldron of intense combat, often under relentless Russian artillery and rocket fire, as well as the ever-present threat of drones and airstrikes. According to Kryvenko, this baptism by fire pushes many new recruits to the psychological breaking point. Even so, the veteran soldier remains confident that Ukraine will regain “the initiative” after this past week of counterattacks.
“There are no old, experienced fighters. There is a lack of artillery and tanks. Every day there are many wounded and killed. But we work because this is our land,” Kryvenko told Coffee or Die.
After weeks of largely static, positional warfare, Ukraine’s offensive counterpunches have shifted the war’s overall dynamic, putting Russia’s invasion forces on the defensive and sending a strong message to Ukraine’s Western backers that, some six months into Russia’s full-scale war, Ukraine has a reasonable chance of victory.
In a press conference alongside US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg underscored the importance of continued Western military aid for Ukraine as the war enters a critical phase.
“If Russia stops fighting, there will be peace. If Ukraine stops fighting, it will cease to exist as an independent nation. So we must stay the course, for Ukraine’s sake and for ours,” Stoltenberg said, according to a readout posted to NATO’s website.
According to a recent article jointly penned by two top Ukrainian defense officials, Ukrainian counterattacks will continue in 2023.
Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, and Lt. Gen. Mykhailo Zabrodskyi, a top defense official in Ukraine’s parliament, wrote that next year’s operations could include an offensive into occupied Crimea, a peninsular territory on the Black Sea that Russia invaded and seized from Ukrainian control in 2014.
In their assessment of the war’s potential outcomes, Zaluzhnyi and Zabrodskyi warned of a protracted conflict in which Russia might “under certain circumstances” consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
“It is hard to imagine that even nuclear strikes will allow Russia to break Ukraine’s will to resist. But the threat that will emerge for the whole of Europe cannot be ignored,” the Ukrainian generals wrote.
Despite Ukraine’s recent battlefield success, Kryvenko similarly cautioned that Russian still has plenty of opportunities to reescalate the conflict, including the possibility of another assault on Kyiv launched from the territory of neighboring Belarus.
“The Russians definitely still have plans that we should know about soon,” Kryvenko said.