'Little by little': Ukraine grinds away on the northeastern front

'Little by little': Ukraine grinds away on the northeastern front

Ukrainian servicemen repair a captured Russian tank in a forest near the front line in the Kharkiv region.
Ukrainian servicemen repair a captured Russian tank in a forest near the front line in the Kharkiv region.

KHARKIV REGION, Ukraine: The motivation to keep fighting the Russians is simple for Viking, a Ukrainian soldier near the northeastern frontlines as cold weather and artillery onslaughts bogs down both sides. He wants revenge.

"I can say that the hardest thing for me is the death of my friends. I had motivation before... but the anger, aggression and hatred reinforces it," says Viking, the nom de guerre of the 26-year-old tank gunner.

But despite the heavy losses incurred by the Ukrainian military over nine months of fighting since the Russian invasion in February, Viking and others in his tank platoon remain confident they will win the war.

"We plan to push the Russians to the borders and even further," he laughs.

His platoon took part in the breakthrough offensive in September that crushed the Russian's northeastern flank, sending their troops in a desperate flight east over the Oskil River in Ukraine's Kharkiv region.

And while the speed of the counter-offensive has since slowed after the Russian's reformed their defensive lines, the Ukrainians say they continue to push even as the winter cold sets in -- straining supply lines as road conditions and bad weather periodically affect combat.

"We pushed back the Russians, gained a foothold, and are advancing little by little," explains Patriot, a 23-year-old member of the platoon camped in a bucolic meadow surrounded by pine trees near the front.

- 'A lot of shelling' -

"There is a lot of shelling. In the last month, I heard about 100 to 200 attacks," he tells AFP, during a trip to their position organised by the Ukrainian military.

Nearby, a 44-year-old mechanic from the unit, who asked not to be named, labours away on the engine of a Russian tank the platoon had captured during September's counter-offensive and is now using against its former owners.

"The condition of Russian equipment is very bad. Everything was covered in diesel and dirty," he says of the tank when they first found it.

"It is almost ready," he adds.

After nine months in the field, the unit's Soviet-era hardware reflects the greater dynamics at play in the war -- one tank was provided by the Ukrainian military, another was taken from the Russians, and a third donated by Poland.

The ammunition required to fight is supplied in part by Russian stocks captured on the battlefield.

"It's the Russian lend-lease act," jokes another member of the team who goes by the call sign Agronome, in reference to a US deal to supply weapons to Ukraine.

The tank platoon's fight is part of a larger push by the Ukrainian military in the northeast that is hoping to capture a key highway supplying the Russian occupied cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.

The two cities were captured by Russian forces following a brutal summer campaign in Donbas, with both sides believed to have lost large numbers of troops.

- 'Don't feel the cold' -

The loss of the cities would add only further humiliation and stymie Russian President Vladimir Putin's stated goals of capturing the Donbas region, after suffering repeated setbacks triggered by Ukrainian thrusts in both the northeast and the south in Kherson.

"On this part of the frontline we are in charge of holding our position and sometimes launching counter-offensives," says Roman, a member of the overall tank battalion operating in the area.

"The situation is completely under control and we are ready for new and sometimes unexpected challenges."

Analysts predict that the tempo of fighting may surge again soon as colder conditions allow for fresh assaults along the frontline.

"Temperatures are forecast to drop across Ukraine over the next week, which will likely freeze the ground and expedite the pace of fighting as mobility increases for both sides," according to a recent assessment by US-based think tank The Institute for the Study of War.

As for the fighters on the ground, the dropping temperatures matter little when compared to Russia's artillery barrages.

"When we know we can get hit at any moment, the adrenaline keeps us warm," says Patriot. "We don't feel the cold."

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