• Sun. May 26th, 2024

Ukraine Marines recount deadly mission to free towns east of Dnieper River


Jan 4, 2024


KHERSON, Ukraine — On the morning of his first crossing of the Dnieper River — where his unit was being sent in a desperate effort to claw back occupied land from Russia — the 21-year-old Ukrainian marine woke up “ready to die.”

With their counteroffensive stalled, Ukraine’s military and political leaders were eager to show their Western backers some progress — any progress.

But the 21-year-old marine, Dmytro — who is being identified only by his first name in keeping with Ukrainian military rules — recounted fording a river of death for little reward, aside from some political messaging.

Dmytro described being “tossed like a piece of meat to the wolves” during the crossing, which takes 30 minutes to an hour. His account was corroborated by six others involved in the operation to lodge a toehold on the river’s Russian-occupied east bank.

“We bear many losses,” said another marine, 22. “We simply lose people, but there is no result.”

Frustrated by reports from Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry — which in November stated that it had “managed to consolidate positions on several strongholds” on the Dnieper River — the marines recounted wounded soldiers drowning, unable to swim with their injuries or sucked to the river bottom by their heavy packs. The crossing was so dangerous that the bodies of some marines, killed in the first wave to cross the river two months ago, were left behind.

Ukraine does not publicly disclose its number of military casualties and has declined to specify how many marines have been killed in the mission, which seized back just a few square kilometers of land, including a toehold in the fishing village of Krynky. A spokesman for the Ukrainian Marine Corps declined to comment: “We are still in silence on this matter,” he said.

But the military acknowledges there have been few gains. “There are no liberated villages,” on the east bank, said Capt. Natalya Humeniuk, head of the joint press center of Ukraine’s Southern Defense Forces.

The front lines here had barely budged since the liberation of Kherson city, the regional capital, from Russian occupation in November 2022, complicated by mucky terrain and bombed-out bridges. As summer ended, the new mission was launched. Aide and ammunition from the West were at stake, as were the lives of marines and soldiers.

As Dmytro left for the crossing, he carried three tins of sardines and six loaves of bread, plus 100 pounds of ammunition and other gear, for an operation that was expected to last a few days — if he survived that long.

Just before sunrise, Dmytro’s battalion approached a shallow sandbar and paired off in twos. Morning fog offered some protection from the Russian-operated drones hunting them in the sky.

Their goal was to push toward Krynky — 20 miles upriver of Kherson — where Dmytro once visited with his parents. He remembered new fences and a few small shops, now just piles of rubble.

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As his boots sunk in thick mud, he buried thoughts of his wife and their baby — all soft cheeks and new smiles. Dmytro had learned of the mission a few days in advance and did not think it was well planned. He did not know what awaited them on the east bank.

He did not think it was worth his life.

It was a sentiment that Johnson — a 40-year-old reconnaissance team leader whom The Washington Post is identifying by his call sign — knew well. In July, he was tasked with clearing the islands that Dmytro was about to navigate. The mission took him across the river six times, most recently in October. The land brimmed with debris left by the Russians — bags of bullets, vials of painkillers, a game of battleship made of paper and blue pen.

The reconnaissance team struggled to navigate the shallow marshlands in boats. Johnson was often forced to drag the vessel 65 feet — about the length of a bowling lane — to reach deeper waters. On the east bank, foxholes turned into wells, he said: “A few shovels of land and you’ll be in water.” The positions were shallow and hard to reinforce. The team was unable to build a fire. Clothes stayed damp and cold.

Though the Ukrainians succeeded in taking back the islands, the cost was steep. Johnson’s commander died in September in a grenade blast. The marines still crossing continue to face severe danger, he said.

“I think it’s unbearable right now,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to be in the positions they are.”

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On the riverbank, waves slapped the shore, and the marshland rippled in a brisk wind. Two pairs of soldiers took off ahead of Dmytro. He looked to his partner, who cursed.

“This plan is” terrible, he said using an expletive.

“Well, are you with me?” Dmytro replied.

‘A present from Russia’

The shelling began almost immediately.

Communication failed, Dmytro said, and the pair could not contact their mortar team to strike back. On the Ukraine Control map — which pins the location of video-recorded missile strikes — the river is clotted with dots corroborating accounts of heavy fire.

By 8 a.m., only 12 of 30 marines were uninjured. Two died.

“We couldn’t fight with people who had tourniquets on them,” Dmytro explained. “We had to wait for new people to replace the people who were injured.”

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The archipelago of islands had provided good cover, with tall cattails and wide bushes. But over on the east bank, vegetation was sparse. The forest was heavily mined, so the marines dug trenches and covered themselves with sand-filled bags. For almost eight hours, they waited.

“When everything explodes from all sides, you begin to live one minute at a time, and you don’t think about anything at all,” Dmytro said.

Later, other marines would travel more frequently by boat.

“Marines who are getting killed today are the operators of the boats,” said a 39-year-old with the call sign Sawyer. “And this is not something you can learn easily. You have to know how to drive them, you have to know how to think really fast, get faster, get out. … This is a tragedy of course.”

After these crossings, the vessels were brought to Vitalii Burgar’s boat shop in Kherson — a Ukrainian-held city scarred by continuous Russian airstrikes, despite President Vladimir Putin’s claims that the city is now part of Russia.

Burgar, 52, repaired recreational boats for 20 years, but the war changed things. Now, he is in the business of repairing bullet holes and attaching machine guns. Recently, he restored a boat engine that had been sunk underwater for several months, its wiring stiff with mussels.

“You’re either in the military or helping the military,” Burgar said.

In mid-December, an explosive Shahed drone hit his shop — “a present from Russia,” he said. But somehow, the work continued.

The marines still needed boats.

‘Horror and unrecognizability’

On the east bank, evening fell.

With another dozen reinforcements, the marines moved in a line toward Krynky, the group of 45 trudging along in clusters of two and three. Suddenly, Dmytro heard gunfire at their backs. It must be a mistake, he thought. The reconnaissance team had said it was safe, that no one would be around.

“Ours!” he shouted, wrongly assuming it was friendly fire.

It was the Russians. The marines shot back.

They survived the night, fighting toward Krynky, where Ukrainian forces have established a toehold in the ruins of homes, with Russian soldiers nearby ready to seize back the land.

On the second day, a grenade exploded, sending a matchstick-sized piece of shrapnel into Dmytro’s hip and giving him a concussion.

He was evacuated — carried out over a mangled landscape. In place of trees, a few sticks pierced the ground. The riverbank was churned to glue, the bodies of some fallen marines left behind, unable to be extricated under gunfire.

“Everything is mowed down by fragments, just to horror and unrecognizability,” Dmytro said.

At least five other men died and 20 were injured by the end of their operation, he said. He was sent home to recover. Upon his return, he was told, he would be sent to the east bank again.

Serhiy Morgunov in Warsaw contributed to this report.


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