Once the center of Ukraine’s hopes, the town of Orikhiv now lies in ruins

Once the center of Ukraine’s hopes, the town of Orikhiv now lies in ruins

ORIKHIV, Ukraine | Once the starting point of Ukraine’s 2023 summer counteroffensive, the small town of Orikhiv in southern Ukraine now finds itself in the middle of a two-way artillery firing range.

“That’s the Russian world right there,” declared Dmytro, gesturing at the surrounding devastation and shaking his head in disbelief. Like many Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines, he is identified only by his first name for security reasons.

Soft-spoken, the head of the press service of Ukraine’s 118th Mechanized Brigade is not usually prone to dramatic outbursts, but his surroundings on this dull, grey Saturday morning in March are anything but usual: A little over three weeks earlier on Feb. 21, a Russian 250-kilogram “glide bomb” had torn through the dome of the Church of the Intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the center of Orikhiv, a small town in the Zaporizhzhia region, before detonating inside, blowing out the stained glass windows and scattering shrapnel all over the edifice.

“This is a Russian [Orthodox] church, belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate,” noted Dmytro, who in a previous life had built wooden toys out of a workshop in Lviv, in western Ukraine. “They’re bombing their own churches.”

In the center of the nave, someone had gathered pieces of the bomb in a makeshift altar, while from the shredded screen known as an iconostasis, a miraculously-spared icon of Jesus looks on disapprovingly at the surrounding devastation, his fingers crossed as if to wish it away.

The church is eerily quiet, save for the crunching of broken glass and plaster under the soles of Dmytro and his comrades’ combat boots.

Yet, for Orikhiv, the silence never remains unbroken for long. After a few minutes, explosions ring out again in the distance: Many of the town’s 14,000 inhabitants had been evacuated in the face of the Russian onslaught in March 2022, while the city and its surroundings were pounded by artillery and fired at with white phosphorus and cluster ammunition.

Only about a thousand residents now remain, sheltering in the basements of bombed-out residential buildings and relying on humanitarian help to survive.

Focal point

One wouldn’t know it when looking at its cratered streets and collapsed houses, but this small town in southern Ukraine had once stood as the focal point of the country’s hopes of liberating its territory and putting an end to the worst war on European soil since 1945.

After weeks of speculation and cryptic messaging from government and military officials, Ukrainian forces last June had launched a series of counterattacks around the city, signaling the beginning of the much-anticipated summer counteroffensive. Newly-formed brigades equipped with Western tanks and weapons rushed towards Russian positions in the oblast of Zaporizhzhia, focusing in particular on a portion of Russia’s defensive line stretching between the front-line villages of Robotyne and Verbove.

After major battlefield successes in late 2022, there were hopes in some quarters in Kyiv, Washington and Brussels that the 2023 summer offensive could deal a decisive blow to Russian occupying forces and force a quick end to the war.

But after months of bloody fighting, Ukrainian efforts had mad frustratingly little progress, stymied by unexpected Russian defensive doggedness and a sprawling network of fortifications and minefields that came to be known as the “Surovikin Line,” after the general who had overseen its construction

“We didn’t have enough ammunition, and the bastards had time to dig in,” cursed Roman, a bearded artillery officer of the 118th Brigade.

“We worked very effectively, firing between 100 and 120 shells a day,” chimed in fresh-faced Danyl, the 22-year-old commander of the battery. “But it wasn’t enough.”

As the Ukrainian advance stalled, Russian forces progressively regained the initiative in late 2023 and launched a series of attacks on the recently liberated villages. All the while, Russian planes kept pounding Orikhiv with 250- and 500-kilogram glide bombs, and by mid-2023, an estimated 80% of the town’s buildings had already been either damaged or destroyed.

“They fire at the city every day, mostly with GRAD rockets,” said Dmytro, driving down a road lined on both sides by destroyed and blackened Soviet-built residential buildings. “But the worst are the glide bombs.”

While much of Russia’s fancy new weaponry has failed to live up to expectations in the war, the throwback glide bombs — Soviet-era aerial bombs retrofitted with modern precision-guidance systems and launched far from the front lines — are wreaking wide devastation. With a flatter flight trajectory, the missiles “glide” to their target and have proven exceedingly hard for the Ukrainians to intercept.

Now, as the Russians have been pressing their advantage on multiple axes of the sprawling, more than 600-mile front line in southern and eastern Ukraine, it falls on Danyl and his men from the 118th Brigade to keep them at bay — even though the stocks of 155 mm artillery shells they rely on are running dangerously low.

“Our own personal record was about 170 shells over two days,” recalled Roman, another Ukrainian soldier, as he took his place inside a U.S.-built M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzer. “Now we fire about 70.”

Scoot and shoot

The artillery piece is operating out of a destroyed agricultural installation on the outskirts of Orikhiv, firing its 95-pound shells in the direction of Robotyne before heading back under the relative safety of a shredded hangar. The vehicle’s flanks are riddled with painted-over shrapnel scars, a testament to the intensity of the fighting in the area.

“Unlike towed artillery, we can shoot and scoot,” explained the Paladin’s driver and mechanic, a grizzled 50-something soldier from Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine. “That’s why we’re still alive.”

The men all seem very fond of the American-supplied gun, which they say is much more reliable and accurate than anything the Russian army is able to field.

“We’ve already destroyed tanks, [armored personnel carriers], artillery pieces, even mortars,” said Danyl, a native of the nearby city of Zaporizhzhia. “This is a very accurate, very reliable gun. We just don’t have enough shells to work with.”

Minutes after our arrival, a radio transmission interrupts the conversation — the crew has been given the coordinates of a target, just a few kilometers away.The vehicle lumbers out of cover with a roar.

After a tense couple of seconds, the gun fires two rounds in short succession. The detonations are deafening, lifting clouds of dust and twigs around the vehicle.

“As you can see, we’ve already congratulated [Putin] on his victory,” said Danyl with a smile.

The results of Russia’s widely disparaged presidential election were scheduled to be revealed the next day, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s re-election had long been a foregone conclusion.

Ukrainian soldiers on the front line greeted the results in characteristically ironic fashion: “That’s two votes against,” said with a laugh Danyl as he took a drag from his cigarette.

In the distance, explosions ring out again in the direction of Orikhiv — or rather, of what’s left of the city.

Read More

Zaļā Josta - Reklāma