PAVLIVKA, Ukraine — A sheepdog, roaming the streets alone, was the only sign of life in this destroyed village. Flames licked the school’s rafters and smoke billowed from a burning house several streets away after Russian artillery strikes earlier in the day.
Amid the smoke and rubble, Pavlivka might seem like a dubious price. But for the Ukrainian troops who defended it last week, after recapturing it from Russian forces three weeks ago, it counted as a rare success when much of Ukraine and the rest of the world were pierced by the fall of the last two eastern cities. Luhansk province to overwhelming Russian firepower.
In this small corner of the adjacent province of Donetsk, a self-confident mechanized brigade went against the trend.
“I told you the next time I saw you, we would have released somewhere,” the unit commander said triumphantly. “Well, we have.” Like most serving officers in the Ukrainian army, the commander, a 30-year-old major who heads an anti-tank unit, asked to be identified only by his code name, Kryha, which means Ice.
Pavlivka, only a few kilometers from the nearest Russian positions, remains a precarious anchorage point for the Ukrainians. The Russians have shelled the village so heavily since its loss that only a small group of Ukrainian soldiers crouched at the entrance. The few civilians who still lived there were hiding, untraceable.
Villages, towns and cities in eastern and southern Ukraine have suffered similar destruction as Russian forces have advanced slowly and brutally over the past five months, hitting Ukrainian troops with artillery strikes ceaseless and killing tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians.
Still, the recapture of Pavlivka was a welcome turnaround for Ukrainian troops in the region after months of setbacks. It also gave them a close view of the enemy, and what they saw gave them confidence.
“People needed to believe in themselves, to see the enemy, to see him captured, killed, to see that he was so easily hit,” said senior lieutenant Andriy Mikheichenko, deputy commander of a unit anti-tank missiles. “In addition, we have a lot of new recruits. These people also needed to feel the success.
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The Ukrainian 53rd Brigade captured the village on June 21, he said. During the night, they negotiated the surrender of 10 Russian prisoners, including the commander stationed in the village.
Kryha, who led the operation, said his troops caught the Russians off guard with both the timing and direction of the attack.
“It was a complete surprise for them,” he said. “We surrounded them so that they could neither advance nor retreat. They were stuck. We’ve also blocked any reinforcements that might come to their aid.
Sitting in an underground operations room at his base, its walls lined with maps and video feeds of the surrounding countryside, he said the Ukrainians had been planning their assault for a month before moving, to ensure minimal casualties. . The preparation paid off and they secured the village within 48 hours, with only one soldier killed and three injured, he said.
The enemy forces consisted of around 150 men, half of them Russian marines and the other half pro-Russian forces from breakaway areas in eastern Ukraine, but he said they had been complacent and not very intelligent.
During a visit to Pavlivka on Sunday, the commander walked through the wreckage of three Russian armored vehicles near the central square. A vehicle was reduced to a jumble of mangled metal, its turret blown off with such force that it lay 100 yards away in the street.
The central buildings were badly damaged and ravaged by fire. “You see what this war is doing? said the major.
Further down the street, the Russians had used a residential complex as their headquarters. An abandoned SUV marked with the Russian code sign Z stood in the yard amid the debris of the battle. It was here that the Russian commander was captured. “He came out and immediately put his hands up,” Kryha said.
There were brief street battles, but the Russians fought little. “They realized it didn’t make sense anymore,” the commander said. “They couldn’t go on.”
The Ukrainians hadn’t planned to get bogged down in taking prisoners, but they eventually took 10 Russians. The Russian commander asked to be allowed to retreat unarmed alongside him, but the Ukrainians did not agree to this, Kryha said.
His men cared less about the Ukrainians fighting alongside the Russians. Dozens of them were killed in battle, he said, and the rest escaped.
The enemy captives were all members of a marine infantry brigade from Russia’s Simferopol naval base in Crimea, said Lt. Mikheichenko, who saw and spoke to the prisoners.
“They were well-spoken, educated and well-equipped,” he said. “But they were all tired and lacked motivation.”
They had been fighting since February, he said, first in the town of Kherson, which Russian forces captured early in the war. Then the unit was thrown into battle for the port city of Mariupol and waged a week-long campaign against Ukrainian troops for control of the Azovstal steelworks. Then, without a break, the marines were sent to the front line positions at Pavlivka.
Among some of the goods, uniforms and weapons captured by the Ukrainians was a diary belonging to one of the Russians killed in the battle. Sergeant of the city of Kemerovo in Siberia, he had written an affectionate farewell letter to his wife. “Maybe they sensed something was happening,” Lt. Mikheichenko said.
The lieutenant provided photographs of some of the diary entries to The New York Times. The sergeant also wrote about an unsuccessful Russian assault on Mariupol and the terrible experience of coming under shellfire from Ukrainian forces. The next day he wrote: “They said there would be another assault. I don’t really want to go, but what should I do?
He also wrote about the looting of Russian soldiers. “Guys went to apartments and took out big bags. Marauding in all its glory,” he wrote. “Some took only what they needed and others took everything from an old television set to a large plasma TV, computers and expensive alcohol.”
Offering defeat to the Russians was of particular importance to the 53rd Brigade. At the start of the war in February, the brigade was defending the town of Volnovakha, which guards a strategic highway to Mariupol. But in mid-March they were forced to surrender the city and retreat for about thirty kilometers, even losing Pavlivka.
They retreated to the town of Vuhledar, a largely deserted conglomeration of high-rise apartment buildings where a few beleaguered residents crowd doorways and cook over open fires in courtyards. Without electricity or running water, they said they relied on the military for supplies and protection from thieves.
A retired miner named Volodymyr, 65, sat on a bench in the courtyard on the north side of a building, which residents have learned is better protected from Russian artillery. “I didn’t think of leaving,” he said. “My wife is buried here and I will rest with her.”
Despite the destruction, Pavlivka had provided a needed boost, Kryha said. “We backed up, backed up, backed up,” he said. “Then we got up and stopped. We have gained strength and resources. People have gained more experience. Now they realized they could really fight.
Kamila Hrabchuk contributed reporting from Kurakhove, Ukraine.