Kherson: Inside the Battle of the Recently Liberated Ukrainian City

near the city of Kherson, Ukraine

Tarnished metal, charred debris and shattered glass covered the floor as a Ukrainian reconnaissance unit stormed a Russian command post on the outskirts of the recently liberated city of Kherson.

Suddenly one of the Ukrainian soldiers shouted: “Come here.” Get your stretcher and first aid kit here.

Moments later, a Russian soldier emerges from cover, wounded in the back of the legs. He is accompanied by Ukrainian soldiers who place him face down on the ground and give him first aid.

He told the Ukrainian soldiers: “We were pinned down here and everyone ran.” “I fell to the ground and lay there until the evening. They came and took my captain and that was it. They said they would come back for me but no one came.”

The exchange was recorded by the survey team and shared with CNN. It provides valuable insight into the uphill battle for the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, which culminated in a Russian withdrawal from a sliver of land on the west bank of the Dnipro River earlier this month, a major setback for the Kremlin’s war.

The Ukrainian unit says the Russian soldier was taken to a safe place and his wounds treated. But many sent by the Kremlin faced a very different outcome.

“They’ve had great losses here,” reconnaissance unit chief Andrei Pedlesny told CNN, reviewing that along with some other footage he and his unit have collected over the past few months.

The 28-year-old captain, whose call sign is “sneaky,” lived up to his name around the Russian outposts.

His troops operated so close to enemy lines that they say they heard Russian soldiers talking, cooking, or chopping wood. The unit located targets either visually or using drones, and then transmitted the coordinates to the Ukrainian artillery for targeting.

This unit includes some of the best trained international volunteers who have arrived in Ukraine since the war began. Originally from the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Germany, along with other European countries, these volunteers have served their militaries in the past and some have prior experience fighting with Kurdish forces against ISIS in Syria.

In one of the drone videos shared with CNN, Moscow soldiers are seen running toward a trench as artillery shells rain down on them. The first shots fall off target. But the reconnaissance soldiers, using the drone, sent subtle adjustments to the gunners. Seconds later, columns of smoke and dust rose from the Russian bunkers and trenches.

The terror of being bombarded like this brings home the sight of Russian soldiers running through the dust, frantically, vainly, seeking safety and cover as more and more high explosive shells explode around them.

During the summer and into the fall, this was the pattern of war on the Kherson front. Ukrainian reconnaissance soldiers said Russia had the advantage in terms of the number of guns — firing “80 rounds against our 20,” says Pedlesny. But modern weapons from NATO and other Western allies sent to Ukraine gave them an advantage in terms of accuracy. In the end, after taking what Pedlesny guessed “50%” casualties, the Russians retreated.

“They lost a lot of people… because of our intelligence, because of our artillery and because of our missile system, especially HIMARS and so on,” he says. “Before they retreated, they lost, in the last month alone, about 90 tanks.”

“This is a big loss for them, especially since they don’t have a lot of new equipment to bring to the front,” adds the survey chief.

The jubilation that followed Ukraine’s success in pushing Russia eastward away from the west bank of the Dnipro River was a somewhat new feeling for Dulesny and his men.

“It was just months and months of frustration,” says Jordan O’Brien. The 29-year-old New Zealander says he has flown all over the world doing his part to “stand up to bullies”, and has been fighting in southern Ukraine as part of an anti-tank unit since June.

“We were finding it difficult to make any impact on the battlefield, and it was very difficult to get to a position where we could see the Russian armor,” O’Brien says. “It was dug to real depths.”

Jordan O'Brien, 29, has traveled the world from his native New Zealand to help Ukraine

Briton Foxy Gifford shares a similar point of view. “The past few months have been very intense,” says the 35-year-old Syrian fighter. The Russians used all the dirty tactics in the book, including massive bombing of civilian areas. So it’s just very dangerous, stressful, and soul-destroying.”

Russian forces captured Kherson and the surrounding area in the first month of their invasion of Ukraine. They had time to dig in and fortify their positions, months before Kyiv announced a counter-offensive in the summer. Russia used heavy artillery to keep the Ukrainian forces at a distance, and stepped up its barrage shortly before withdrawing.

“The last two weeks in particular have been very intense because we’ve received a massive amount of artillery,” says Gifford. The unit survived but the pressure was overwhelming. O’Brien adds, “If anything is going to break you in this country, it’s artillery.” Fortunately, everyone is strong.

Pedlesny and his men were relieved when they began to hear of a possible Russian retreat over the Dnipro River.

‘Sneaky’ says that the Moscow armies began their retreat from Kherson under cover of darkness, from November 8 to November 9, and moved their second and third defensive lines towards Kherson and the surrounding villages. Their first line of defense was the last to move in the morning, Pedlesny says, leaving behind several rows of landmines to cover their retreat, hoping to ambush and slow down the Ukrainian forces.

By November 10, all the Russian forces on the west bank near the Dnipro River had retreated and began crossing to the east bank, says Bidelny. By November 11, the withdrawal was complete and confirmed by the Russian Ministry of Defense on its official Telegram channel.

Damian Rodriguez, the unit’s explosives expert, of the Bronx, says he had trouble believing the Russians had picked up and left.

Edit Kherson Ukraine Robertson intldsk_00001009.png

‘This is what liberation looks like’: Ukraine takes back Kherson

“We heard rumours, but we weren’t sure,” says Rodriguez, a 41-year veteran of the Kurdish campaign against ISIS. “I didn’t really believe 100% until we got to the ground and saw they all left the positions.”

He says the months-long struggle will be worth it in the end.

“You see the villagers…you see everyone crying and thanking us for the help…for helping liberate their village,” Rodriguez says. “It was like Syria when we were liberating villages from Daesh.”

“The number of people that took to the streets, it honestly felt like World War II… people throwing flowers at us and things. It was amazing,” Gifford adds.

After chaotic retreats first from Kyiv and then from Kharkiv, the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that the withdrawal from Kherson was a calculated decision, executed in a professional manner.

The ministry also said, “Not a single piece of military equipment or weapons was left on the right bank.”

Sly Gifford, 35, fought alongside Kurdish soldiers against ISIS in Syria, but says the feeling of liberating Kherson reminded him of World War II.

But Sneaky and his unit dispute this account. Although the Russian soldiers had nearly a week to prepare for the retreat, they left in haste.

“We came with another intelligence unit to check their locations and found that they ran very quickly from the first line and left a lot of things, documents and so on,” Pedlesny explains.

A video shared by the unit with CNN shows dozens of boxes of ammunition, military and personal documents. “They left behind a huge amount of ordnance – everything from anti-aircraft items to grenades and small arms,” ​​says Gifford.

This was a pleasant surprise for the men in the unit.

“I was able to hunt for some really nice stuff because here in Ukraine, we could be better equipped, and use up some of our ammunition,” Rodriguez explains. “I use a drone and drop all kinds of payloads and set booby traps, so I’ve got some good detonators and extra grenades.

“We call it a reallocation of resources,” he adds.

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