Vast plains stretch out into infinity where ruins, smoke and a vast expanse of deep blue stand out. It is the Dnieper, the fourth longest river in Europe, which has become the front line in southern Ukraine.
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The majestic river crosses the country from north to south before emptying into the Black Sea in the Kherson region where it separates the belligerents.
Ukrainian troops have been holding the right bank since the liberation of the regional capital of the same name on November 11, 2022. On the left bank, the Russian army still occupies parts of Kherson and Zaporizhia regions.
Kiev launched a major counter-offensive in the south and east in June, but the front line has barely moved and each side relentlessly bombards the other.
“The Russians are using everything they have against us: artillery, kamikaze drones, phosphorus,” explains a sergeant with the nom de guerre Vojd (chief in Ukrainian). His unit guards the bank southwest of the city of Kherson, to alert the artillery in case of a possible Russian incursion across the river, on which civilians no longer dare to sail.
Wrapped in his balaclava, gun in hand, this 38-year-old soldier stands out with the wild ducks that rise in a twilight bathed in liquid gold and almost make us forget the war.
“Our enemy is the rain. With a clear sky, we can see how the ships arrive much better”, he underlines.
“Solid” Russian defenses
“We have the advantage on this side,” he explains from atop a small promontory topped with touches of dry grass. This point is higher than the opposite bank protecting the Russian lines, separated from the Ukrainian positions by about ten kilometers of fresh water.
This fall, Ukrainian forces appear to have succeeded in establishing several small bridgeheads on the left bank of the Dnieper northeast of Kherson.
According to Vojd’s superior, a 45-year-old commander with the nom de guerre Armiantchik, his men also “make raids on the other side.”
“The Russians are well prepared, they have solid defense lines. It won’t be easy, but on the other hand, it’s our home and we know the terrain”, tempers the soldier as he laments the lack of armored ships.
Karamba, a 35-year-old mustachioed man, was involved in operations on the other side. Their task is to clear the mines before the arrival of the assault brigades, a task made difficult by the failure in early June of the Kakhovka Dam upstream, which caused massive flooding in that area.
“Because of the flood, there are mines found everywhere: in the middle of destroyed houses, among bushes and dead branches,” he describes.
Apart from the mines, “on the other side, the drones are constantly flying over our heads, the mortars, the tanks, they are constantly shooting at you, not to mention the aviation”, continues Karamba.
In another position near the Dnieper, a unit of the 123rd Territorial Brigade took over a large abandoned building to set up a mortar position and hide ships.
“You have to be discreet here,” said one soldier, fearing the presence of pro-Russian informants among the locals.
Wall for both camps
Next door, Vitamine, a 31-year-old gunner, is in charge of firing mortar shells at the coordinates given by observers like Vojd.
“For two months now, the Russians have had faster ships,” he explains, adjusting the load on his projectiles.
His sector centers on a network of small islands that obstruct the broad bed of the Dnieper and on which the Russians, he says, are “trying to establish positions.”
“I’m here to stop them,” says the young man, who says he has already sunk six Russian ships with their occupants and claims to know nothing about the number of Ukrainian ships sunk.
“The river is a natural wall. It is more difficult for the enemy to position himself. But also to land on the other side”, he admits.
Between the soldier’s legs, barks Joulka, a puppy rescued by Ukrainian soldiers on an island during an operation.
Since then he has become “a kind of alarm” for them: fleeing each time before the attacks of a Russian kamikaze drone, a formidable threat on these endless plains.
“The Russians have more drones than we do,” says Vitamin. “Besides, I’m sure they’re watching us right now….”