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Ukrainian troops continue counteroffensive in regional capital seized by Russians

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ukrainian troops continue to try to win back Russian-occupied territory. Their efforts have been successful in the northeast of the country, but Moscow-aligned forces still hold large chunks in the east and the south of Ukraine. And one of the big questions is whether Ukraine can win back the southern city of Kherson. NPR's Jason Beaubien talked to some of the Ukrainian soldiers who are involved in that counteroffensive.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In a village in the Kherson region that was seized by Russian forces soon after the February invasion, a woman now sells coffee and snacks to Ukrainian soldiers out of a window in her house. The front line has shifted repeatedly here. But in early October, Kyiv's forces won back hundreds of square miles of territory on the west bank of the Dnieper River. Much of that territory was farmland and sparsely populated small villages like this one. Luka is a scout for an intelligence unit with Ukraine's 63rd Mobile Infantry Brigade. He says this type of combat, a counteroffensive against a dug-in enemy, is complex.

LUKA: (Through interpreter) It's more difficult because they are dug in, and we are moving, and we are just out in the open without any cover.

BEAUBIEN: He says one machine-gunner can cause a lot of damage to advancing infantry. Luka, along with all the Ukrainian troops we talked to, is only authorized to give his first name. He says defending a position is far easier than taking it.

LUKA: (Through interpreter) For example, to take the position which is held by five people, you need 40, 50 people. You need more soldiers to fire on this position to make it possible for our troops to move forward.

BEAUBIEN: In the first days of October, the Russian troops on the edges of occupied Kherson quickly retreated, but they pulled back to areas fortified with land mines, trenches and sandbagged machine gun positions. Luka says they've even dug their tanks into pits, making them harder to hit. One of Luka's colleagues, Artem, says offensive maneuvers need to be well coordinated and ideally should strike with as much force as possible at the enemy's weakest position.

ARTEM: (Through interpreter) For a successful counterattack, you need infantry, artillery, drones, aircraft, armored vehicles. You need everything.

BEAUBIEN: This may help explain part of why Ukraine's progress in this part of the country has slowed. Gregory, also with the 63rd Brigade, is from an artillery unit. He says the initial shift of momentum in the fighting in this region came as a result of the arrival of Western weapons. Gregory runs a team of six soldiers that operates a Soviet-era howitzer. The massive gun can launch artillery shells at targets up to 10 miles into enemy territory.

GREGORY: (Through interpreter) In the beginning when we got here, it was harder because after we'd fire one or two shots, the Russians would respond with dozens of shells. They wouldn't worry about conserving their ammunition.

BEAUBIEN: But when Western rocket systems, including the HIMARS, arrived, that allowed Ukrainians to hit Russian targets up to 50 miles away. Gregory says they focused on blowing up Russian munitions and fuel storage facilities. All of a sudden, the Russians started conserving their ammunition, he says. Oleg, a former lawyer who's now the press officer for the 63rd Brigade, says these Western rocket systems have made it harder for the Russians to get fuel, food and ammunition to their troops on the front line.

OLEG: (Through interpreter) And for now, it's enough just that the Russians know that the Western artillery is here. We might not even use it, but because of its presence here, they need to keep their storage much farther away.

BEAUBIEN: The next big challenge facing the 63rd Brigade and the other Ukrainian troops fighting in this region is whether they'll be able to retake the city of Kherson, which is the only regional capital that the Russians have managed to seize since the February 24 invasion.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kherson, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.