NATALYNE, Ukraine – At a school where Russian forces had set up a base in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, three of their armored personnel carriers remained on the property – for now. They were damaged when Ukraine’s military recently forced the occupying soldiers back from this area. Over the weekend, three locals hammered at one vehicle to salvage spare parts.
The ground was still covered in fragments of ammunition. The other two vehicles were parked behind the building, in a field of lavender, a jarring contrast in the idyllic rural landscape.
The new Russian positions are just some three miles from this spot, but the makeshift mechanics appeared unconcerned. The day had passed quietly. Just one plume of smoke – an indication of an artillery strike – had appeared on the horizon all day. And it was on the Russian side of the front line.
With Moscow concentrating its efforts on taking territory in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region – battering cities, towns and Kyiv’s troops with a near-constant barrage of artillery fire – Ukraine has been able to make steady gains in the south. Village by village, more of the strategically important Kherson region is returning to Ukrainian control – another sign that Russia’s forces might be overextended with a front line that stretches about 300 miles.
Regaining control of Kherson, a rich agricultural region with Black Sea access, is critical for Ukraine. It’s the only position the Russians hold west of the Dnieper River, and a prime position to launch any future offensive down the Black Sea coast to the major port city of Odessa. The Ukrainian counteroffensive is squeezing Russian positions from two directions – the west and the north.
“Here, you can hunt them,” said a Ukrainian reconnaissance commander in the region whose call sign is “Makhno.” “They’ve committed everything to the east.”
Residents in the region say they have stopped spending every night in their underground hideouts. Shelling from the Russian-controlled side has not stopped, but people have simply grown used to it. Most of the Kherson region has been occupied since the first week of the war – Moscow’s first major land grab after its tanks and troops advanced from the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia invaded and annexed in 2014.
But holding the territory has proved challenging while more Russian forces have been concentrated to the northeast. Near the school in Natalyne, another village that had been considered a “gray zone” – a status for areas considered not completely controlled by either side – returned to Ukrainian control a week ago.
For the roughly 75 people who stayed in town, the Russian occupiers went door to door and confiscated their phones, creating an information blackout for most. They didn’t know the Ukrainians were successfully running counteroffensive operations on this front until the night the Russians suddenly pulled out, under pressure from Ukrainian artillery strikes.
The villagers said their daily life had not changed much, even with the Russians gone. Their home was still a war zone. Soldiers still patrolled the streets – only now they were wearing Ukrainian uniforms. The sounds of fighting remained loud and close.
“But I’d rather our guys be here than theirs,” said Alyona Kharaim, who was out for a bike ride to pick up milk on Saturday afternoon with her husband and young daughter.
Along one gravel road leading here, children have set up their own pretend checkpoint for cars driving by. A 12-year-old girl playfully asked Washington Post journalists to say a code word – “palianytsia,” a type of Ukrainian bread – before allowing them to pass. Ukrainian soldiers who saw this chuckled that the kids have apparently learned to regularly change the password – for security reasons, of course. One that they previously used was a crude quip about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the town of Novovorontsovka, at the northern boundary of the Kherson region, residents of one bombed-out apartment block covered neighbors’ windows with plastic. The glass was shattered long ago. Most people had left town, but a handful stayed.
Mykola Kostitsyn, 66, held pieces of shrapnel in the palm of his hand. At first, bits of the artillery destroying his neighborhood were a novelty and people collected them. But now there is so much of it that no one cares anymore.
“Why bother collecting them?” he said. “There is more and more every day. How much of this stuff can you collect?”
Shelling has become such a part of daily routine for Liudmyla Denysenko, 59, and her 86-year-old mother, Anastasia Bilyk, that they wait for their walls to actually rattle from the blasts before they bother moving to their cellar for shelter.
They also wait for word from Denysenko’s son, fighting for Ukraine somewhere along the vast front. He calls only once a day, and he never tells her his location. On Saturday afternoon, she was concerned that he had not checked in yet. Maybe he could be fighting around the Kherson region, she said, aiding the counteroffensive to end the shelling of their home.
“It would be great if they pushed them back even farther,” she said. “Because we can’t go on like this.”
The Washington Post’s Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report.