CNN was given unprecedented access to the frontline town of Velyka Novosilka in southeastern Ukraine, a secretive area where Ukraine has been preparing part of the opening phases of its counteroffensive.
Immediately to the south, Ukrainian pushing and probing has produced some success, as troops have taken back the villages of Neskuchne, Blahodatne and, more recently, Makarivka.
Ukrainian forces have been working to stabilize some of the villages, but when CNN visited Velyka Novosilka, the situation remained very fluid. Russia, some soldiers said, was not going down without a fight.
“Our people are trying to knock them out of there, and they are trying to gain a foothold there,” according to a combat medic who goes by the call sign Winnie. “There’s been shelling and our boys were wounded. One guy was seriously injured so we got him out of there alive and our medic provided him with qualified assistance.”
Velyka Novosilka, which has been without water, electricity or gas for a year and a half – and is constantly battered by shelling and strikes – is an oasis by comparison.
Winnie is one of several combat medics with the 68th Jaeger, one of Ukraine’s long-established brigades that has held this front line since early in the war. Now, reinforced by Western-trained units and armed with Western-supplied weapons, they are hoping to take back Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia.
“(The US-donated) MaxxPro (armored fighting vehicle) has saved my life many times. It saves our lives every day from shrapnel, shelling and bullets,” says another soldier who goes by the call sign Skrypal.
“We are advancing, have cleared the village (of Blahodatne) and are moving on. The enemy is confused, does not know where to go, surrenders and retreats,” he says.
It’s a long, hard and dangerous task and, even this early on in Ukraine’s offensive, it’s not difficult to foresee victory is likely to come at a heavy cost. To reduce it, Ukraine relies heavily on drone pilots to provide accurate reconnaissance.
“It is impossible to carry out an offensive without drones,” says a pilot with the call sign Mara. “There are many casualties. But with the help of drones, losses can be minimized as much as possible.”
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