Ukraine’s progress in the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia has been far more limited than its successes in the northeast. Front-line positions come under regular fire as both Russia and Ukraine attempt to push forward.
An old Soviet self-propelled howitzer called ‘Gvozdika’ or ‘Carnation’ is rolled out in an open field and put into position. Its barrel tilts up. “Fire!” comes the command.
The gunners hastily move away after the last shot, acting quickly. Although the advancement of Ukrainian forces in the south was very slow, their artillery units remained busy.
Stus, commander of the gunners, explains that the Russians target his infantry, and they respond to silence them.
Their job is very much felt at the front line. Soldiers walk across the vast field under the cover of a sequence of trees. They ignore the sound of missiles flying above their head, nor the thud of explosions. The fighters say a Russian observation post is 500m away, and they might be within the range of small arms.
The Ukrainians move quickly to reach a destroyed farm building they took back just a week ago. Now, they dig trenches and carry sandbags to fortify their new position.
But Ukraine’s advancement in the south is moving slowly.
All talk about counter-offensive here helps to deceive Russians and achieve gains in the East, laughs Vasyl, a deputy regiment commander.
“But we have some success here as well. We continue liberating villages with small steps, but it’s very difficult – every victory we have is covered with blood,” he adds.
Many Ukrainians who remain behind the Russian front line in the occupied territories are anxiously waiting for this counter-offensive.
“We’re euphoric when Ukraine hits the occupied territories,” says Iryna, a resident of Melitopol in the south. “It means that Ukraine has not forgotten us. We all know that living near military infrastructure and buildings is not safe, so most civilians have moved out from those locations.”
But for people in the occupied territories, the longer they wait, the harder it is to survive. Many believed that the counter-offensive would happen in August. But when that didn’t happen, people started to flee toward Ukrainian-controlled territories and areas further to the West.
Among them was Tatyana Kumok from Melitopol. The Israeli citizen visited her hometown when the Russian invasion started in February. She stayed in the city and distributed aid to residents, but in September, she and her family decided to leave. One of the main reasons for leaving was Russia’s promise to hold a so-called referendum.
“As soon as it’s done, the Russians will introduce new bans according to their laws and try to legitimise the occupation,” she says.
With the city turned into a giant military base, she says it is clear that Russian troops won’t abandon the city easily.
“It was obvious the city won’t be liberated this fall,” she adds.
Russian soldiers are already going house to house in some villages and writing down the names of male residents, residents say. They claim soldiers have told them to be ready for a call-up after the referendum.
Men aged 18-35 are reportedly not allowed to leave the occupied territories anymore.
Iryna left on 23 September, the first day of the so-called referendum, with her husband and two children. They wanted to stay to look after her paralysed 92-year-old grandmother.
“But when Putin announced the call-up, and we already knew about the referendum, it was clear there would be a mass mobilization and men would be detained right on the street irrespective of their age,” she says.
“We could survive without gas and electricity; we could find solutions for that. But not for this. That was our red line,” says Iryna.
The Russian call-up will pose more challenges for the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Ukrainian soldiers say it will undoubtedly escalate the war, and more people will die.
“We shouldn’t underestimate our enemy,” says Stus, commander of the gunners. “Those new recruited Russian soldiers will have guns and grenades, so they will pose a threat, which we must eliminate”.
As the gunners wait for new tasks with their howitzer hidden in the bushes, Russian troops hit a nearby Ukrainian village with Grad missiles. The gunners are silent as they listen to the series of explosions.
That terrifying sound was just another reminder that the success of the Ukrainian troops will depend on how quickly they can make Russian artillery and rocket launchers go silent.