Reportage. To the north of the city, in a ghostly landscape of debris and destroyed vehicles, we explore the positions occupied until a few hours earlier by Russian troops, driven back by the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

The aftermath of the battle of Mykolaiv

A heavy battle took place along the H14 highway north of Mykolaiv last week. According to many, it was the Ukrainian response to the missile attack on the barracks of the 79th Airborne Brigade on Friday. We do not know if this is true or if the counterattack was already planned. The fact is that the plan worked, and the Russians were driven back for several tens of kilometers until they were defeated in the village of Kashpero-Mykolaivka.

The asphalt of the highway is almost completely undamaged, but everywhere there is debris, wrecks, exploded tires, upside-down wooden crates of ammunition and remains of all kinds. In the fields all around, one can see the craters of artillery shells and traces of the maneuvers of heavy vehicles and tank tracks. Where the terrain allowed, especially near intersections or in the middle of the longest straights, the Russians had dug trenches and firing positions. These are real underground barracks in which boxes of the “k rations” of the Moscow army can still be seen. Nearby, there are dry branches and small tree trunks that the troops used to make fire.

All around are boundless fields, probably with landmines in places. At an intersection, there is an area almost entirely deforested by the heavy fire, and on the other side of the road one can see a kind of hut wedged between two logs and camouflaged with straw. Behind it, there are rectangular holes about a meter and a half deep, with dry branches or plastic sheets to insulate them from the ground and a small opening in the part facing the road, framed by intertwining branches, in order to position the gun barrel and see the enemy without being seen. Seen from above, there are dozens of these dugouts, giving the impression of graves waiting for the coffins – a chilling image in the silence of the spring morning.

Nobody is driving by. Our white car stopped on the roadside with the keys in the ignition and the doors open is the only tangible presence between the brown and bare fields under the low sky and those dugouts that for two weeks protected the position of the Russian rear. The most common object among the remains of the Russian presence is a green box with a star and “Armiya Rossiy” (Russian army) written on it, next to which there are often ration boxes that tragically resemble those for cats. There are a few bottles of water, bricks of fruit juice and milk and rags.

While we are taking pictures, we hear a car that stops, reverses and honks at us. A voice speaking Russian asks who we are; after seeing the presence of the Ukrainian colors on the car, we go out and find ourselves faced with a soldier, aged about 45. We exchange a few words with him – his name is Andriy, and we tell him that we have come to document the Russian retreat.

He seems happy and asks us to follow him because he wants to show us where the battle took place. Behind his white 4×4, racing at full speed along the dirt and very bumpy roads, we go into the countryside. After a while, we stop to see the hiding place of a Russian tank: a much larger rectangle than the one dug for soldiers, and a little deeper, with two branches in front, stuck in the ground with red ribbons tied to them.

“Dangerous,” Andriy says in English as he gestures for us to back off. On the ground there is a tank shell, and on the brambles that rise up above our heads there are shreds of clothes, underwear and sleeping bags. Andriy tells us via signs that soldiers who came from Crimea were stationed there to keep an eye on Mikolaiv, to shoot at Ukrainians. He begins to tell the story, alternating gestures with a few key words. One of these is “raketa,” missile, accompanied by a descending movement of the hand, pointing right into the ditch of the tank, and then “booom.”

He opens the trunk of his car and shows us a Russian tank driver’s helmet: it is black on the outside and padded with white wool on the inside, and it looks like a relic from the Second World War. Then he shows us a green satellite phone: “This is an analog Motorola from the Russian army,” he tells us, making fun of the large battery, the half-meter antenna and the general appearance of the device. “This,” he adds, showing us a small plastic briefcase, “is our Motorola – digital!”

We agree that it is more modern and more beautiful, and he seems very happy with that. But we must continue, he signals to us; he wants to show us some “tecnika” of the Russians, a term by which they generally mean a wide assortment of vehicles and equipment. But in this case, it’s clear that Andriy’s trophy is something big.

Trying to stay behind him and not to break the car’s suspension, we arrive in the small agricultural village of Kashpero-Mykolaivka. The scene is so impressive it’s hard to believe. A very long line of trenches and underground firing positions starting at the entrance to the village that surrounds an area of ​​several hundred meters, ending in a concrete and sheet metal shed that used to be stables, now ruined.

“The Russian soldiers slept in the stables,” Andriy explains with a hint of humor as he points to the neighboring farmyard where several vehicles have been destroyed by Ukrainian fire.

A tank with a slightly faded but still legible “Z” has its tracks several meters away, its cannon turret on the other side of the courtyard and the gunner’s seat next to the stables. Another armored troop transporter is completely melted on the inside, so that it’s impossible to distinguish the sharp lines of the military design; on what remains of its entrance door, someone has hung bags that are still intact, and two sleeping bags.

The wind blows a newspaper with Putin’s photo in the foreground and Shoigu’s smaller photo on the left. There are several copies piled up in one spot. In the center of the courtyard, there is a red tow truck with the “Z” on the doors and a burned-out engine. All around are pieces of metal, large-caliber shells and craters everywhere. Behind the stables, the line of trenches is regular and continuous, following the whole side of the small hill and pointing towards Mykolaiv.

A few hundred meters away is the cultural center of the village. “Here, the officers,” says Andriy, then pointing to a large cab truck he calls a “strateghia” (“command center”), from which many electric cables with melted sheaths are dangling in every direction.

Whenever the wind picks up, the tin roof of a shed right next to the (surprisingly intact) children’s playground makes sharp noises that resemble shots. Andriy smiles and tells us that we shouldn’t be afraid, the Russians are no longer there.

Shortly before leaving the last line of fortifications, which was the home of a number of soldiers for ten days, we see thick smoke from one of the trenches. We approach and see that a farmer is burning dry leaves and other scraps. Very patient, he watches the fire as the wind lifts a shred of a newspaper page with Putin’s face on it, being devoured by embers.

Meanwhile, on the eastern front, bombing continues in Kharkiv and there are more and more rumors of “forced evacuations” to Russia from Mariupol. According to local authorities, 6,000 civilians have already been forced to cross the border and their Ukrainian passports have been seized.

On the other side, the infamous leader of the Chechen special troops, Ramzan Kadyrov, has posted a video in which his men call him to report that the town hall building in Mariupol is under Russian control. At the moment, also due to the absence of journalists in the city, the news from this front is not immediately verifiable.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!