Ukraine pushes back the Russians near Kherson in a major counter-offensive

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NATALYNE, Ukraine — At a school where Russian forces had established a base in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, three of their armored personnel carriers have remained on the property — for now. They were damaged when the Ukrainian army recently forced the occupation soldiers to leave this area. Over the weekend, three locals hammered a vehicle to scavenge spare parts.

The ground was still covered with fragments of ammunition. The other two vehicles were parked behind the building, in a field of lavender, a stark contrast to the idyllic rural landscape.

The new Russian positions are only three miles from this place, but the makeshift mechanics seem indifferent. The day had passed quietly. A single plume of smoke – indicative of an artillery strike – had appeared on the horizon all day. And that was on the Russian side of the front line.

As Moscow focuses its efforts on taking territory in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region – beating Kyiv’s towns, villages and troops with a near-constant barrage of artillery fire – Ukraine has been able to make gains regular in the south. Village by village, more of the strategically important Kherson region is coming back under Ukrainian control – another sign that Russian forces could be overwhelmed with a front line that stretches some 300 miles.

Regaining control of Kherson, a rich agricultural region with access to the Black Sea, is essential for Ukraine. This is the only position the Russians hold west of the Dnieper, and a prime position to launch any future offensive along the Black Sea coast towards the main port city of Odessa. The Ukrainian counteroffensive compresses the Russian positions from two directions – the west and the north.

“Here you can hunt them,” said a Ukrainian reconnaissance commander in the area whose call sign is “Makhno”. “They’ve committed everything to the east.”

Locals say they have stopped spending every night in their underground hideouts. The shelling from the Russian-controlled side did not stop, but people just got used to it. Most of the Kherson region has been occupied since the first week of the war – Moscow’s first major land grab after its tanks and troops advanced from the Crimean peninsula, which Russia invaded and annexed in 2014.

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But holding the territory proved difficult as more Russian forces were concentrated to the northeast. Near the school in Natalyne, another village that had been considered a “grey zone” – a status for areas considered not fully controlled by either side – returned to Ukrainian control a week ago.

For the approximately 75 people who remained in town, the Russian occupiers went door to door and confiscated their phones, creating an information blackout for most. They did not know that the Ukrainians were carrying out successful counter-offensive operations on this front until the night when the Russians suddenly withdrew, under pressure from Ukrainian artillery strikes.

The villagers said their daily life had not changed much, even with the Russians gone. Their home was still a war zone. Soldiers were still patrolling the streets – only now they wore Ukrainian uniforms. Battle sounds remained loud and close.

“But I’d rather have our guys here than theirs,” said Alyona Kharaim, who went out for a bike ride to fetch milk on Saturday afternoon with her husband and young daughter.

Along a gravel road leading here, the children have set up their own dummy checkpoint for passing cars. A 12-year-old girl playfully asked Washington Post reporters to say a code word — “palianytsia,” a type of Ukrainian bread — before letting them through. Ukrainian soldiers who saw this laughed as they said the children had apparently been taught to change the password regularly – for security reasons, of course. One they used before was a crude quip about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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In the town of Novovorontsovka, on the northern edge of the Kherson region, residents of a bombed apartment building covered neighbors’ windows with plastic. The glass was broken a long time ago. Most people had left town, but a handful remained.

Mykola Kostitsyn, 66, held shrapnel in the palm of her hand. At first, the pieces of the artillery destroying his neighborhood were a novelty and people collected them. But now there are so many that no one cares.

“Why bother collecting them?” he said. “There are more and more every day. How many of these things can you collect? »

Shelling is such a part of the daily routine for Liudmyla Denysenko, 59, and her 86-year-old mother, Anastasia Bilyk, that they wait for their walls to vibrate from the explosions before bothering to take shelter in their cellar.

They are also awaiting news of Denysenko’s son, fighting for Ukraine somewhere on the broad front. He only calls once a day and never tells her where he is. On Saturday afternoon, she feared he hadn’t arrived yet. Perhaps he could fight in the Kherson region, she said, helping the counteroffensive to end the shelling of their home.

“It would be great if they pushed them back even further,” she said. “Because we can’t go on like this.”

Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report.

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