NEAR KHERSON, Ukraine — On a hot summer afternoon, NPR was interviewing soldiers near the front lines northeast of Kherson when something happened that shows just how dangerous this sprawling combat zone can be.
Two Ukrainian fighter jets, who identified themselves only by their first names, Viktor and Serhiy, said they had spotted a Russian drone overhead.
We were in a dense forest, sheltered by the tree canopy. But the drone was apparently tracking our location and possibly sharing our position with Russian artillery or other units.
“It’s hovering over us as we speak,” Viktor said. “It’s nearby while we’re here. It’ll fly away and then we can go back.”
It was a terrifying moment. For the first time, we felt some of the fear that thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have experienced every day since Russia’s invasion.
We would soon learn that in this deadly place, which some Ukrainians call the “gray zone,” danger can come in many forms.
The effort to recapture Kherson is Ukraine’s first major counteroffensive against Russia
That morning, NPR’s team set out from Kryvyi Rih, a fortified Ukrainian city in the east that often comes under Russian missile fire.
Our goal was to meet and speak with soldiers who participated in the first major counteroffensive against Russia: an attempt to recapture the strategic transportation hub of Kherson.
Our first stop was an abandoned factory where a burly man with a thick black beard waited in the back of a Ukrainian army ambulance. He called himself “Doctor” and pounded the medical supplies strapped to his armor. “I carry everything I need on me,” he said.
Like many Ukrainian soldiers, Doc agreed to be interviewed only if NPR would use a nickname.
Brian Mann/Brian Mann/NPR
For this day he waited. There were no patients at this time, only the distant rumble of Russian tank fire. Doc said that when wounded soldiers arrive at this venue, they are often in “a very bad state,” wounded by the enemy’s fearsome artillery.
“We need to quickly give them injections, stabilize them,” he said.
From this remote outpost, the wounded are then taken in their ambulance or other vehicles to military hospitals for further care.
According to British and American intelligence reports, fighting on the Kherson front in southern Ukraine along the Dnipro River is already intense and brutal. For the first time, the Ukrainian army is trying to retake a major city, one that has been occupied by Russia since the early days of the invasion.
Much of the fighting is done by soldiers who were civilians not so long ago.
Asked what he expects to happen when Ukraine’s first major counteroffensive pushes toward Kherson, Doc shrugged and motioned toward the waiting stretchers.
“There will definitely be more victims,” he said.
Why Kherson matters
A victory here could change the course of the war.
It would demonstrate Ukraine’s capacity to wield high-tech Western artillery effectively while using ground troops to take and hold key territory.
Losing Kherson, a key bridgehead and regional center of government on the Dnipro River, would also deal a major blow to Moscow’s official narrative that the war is a “limited” military operation that Russia still claims to be winning.
A short drive from the ambulance station brought us closer to active combat. The thump of Russian tank fire sounded more often like a distant summer thunderstorm.
Even Ukrainian soldiers who have been fighting here for months say the “gray zone” is a big, confusing place. It stretches in a rugged arc from war-torn villages on the outskirts of Kryvyi Rih, about 100 miles north of Kherson, to Mykolaiv, a city near the Black Sea.
The active battle line between Ukrainian and Russian units shifts daily as troops move through old industrial areas, semi-abandoned villages, agricultural fields, winding rivers and dense forests.
Brian Mann/Brian Mann/NPR
Russian units are still fighting back
Our next stop was a heavily damaged bunker and observation post that had recently had to be abandoned due to incoming Russian artillery and missile fire.
“They started by hitting us with the BM-27 Uragan,” May said. Oleksandr Lytvynov referring to a powerful Soviet rocket launcher known as a “Hurricane”.
“Then a missile hit this wall from the other side. When they hit us the second time, we made the decision to move.”
He crawled into a bomb crater fifty meters across, laughed and said he was lucky to have survived. The Russians’ aim was just a little off.
Before the war, Lytvynov – a man in his mid-50s – worked outside Ukraine as a driver, but like many Ukrainian men, he returned home to fight. He told us that he volunteered to escort us closer to the fighting because it was important for people to know what life is like for Ukrainian soldiers.
“Next place,” he said, holding the door open to a battered SUV.
From this point forward, Ukraine’s military required NPR’s teams to ride in their vehicles as part of a two-car convoy.
Mile by mile the landscape looked increasingly eerily empty – farm buildings pillaged by artillery, fields and roads torn by bomb craters. As the cars bounced and crashed down rutted country roads, Lytvynov told us through an interpreter that it’s easy to get lost here.
Soldiers in the gray area face constant anxiety from Russian spotter drones, snipers and artillery.
Lytvynov pointed to farm fields where the bronze yellow wheat will remain unharvested this year because of the ever-present danger.
A trench where Ukrainians held out against Russian tanks
After 20 minutes of driving, the vehicles turned into a camouflaged parking lot in a row of trees. Ukrainian soldiers manned this area during some of the heaviest weeks of fighting.
“Our company held and fought here, our grunts lived here, and this is still our fallback position,” said a Ukrainian soldier who identified himself by his first name, Viktor.
“There were many incoming. We were hit by tanks and mortars.”
On foot, Viktor led the way deeper into the trees, where his fellow soldiers had dug their trench about 10 feet deep into the raw earth and covered it with logs cut from the nearby forest. It was a narrow space, cramped and claustrophobic.
He said troops were often stationed here for a month at a time.
“Of course it’s scary when you’re under fire,” said another soldier, who identified himself as Serhiy. “These feelings are different from person to person. There are people who are afraid, but we also have men who can overcome this feeling.”
In recent weeks, Ukraine’s army has been pushing the Russians back from this point. It has been a reluctant, bitter struggle. An officer interviewed by NPR compared the fighting here to what the United States encountered during some of the heaviest fighting in Vietnam.
Despite the risk and difficulty, these soldiers seemed confident that Ukraine’s counteroffensive to retake Kherson would succeed.
“We are moving forward and plan to move forward more,” Viktor said. “This is how we move little by little.”
A Russian drone and a death in the gray area
But it was at this moment, as the soldiers talked confidently about Ukraine’s advances pushing back Russia, that the enemy drone appeared overhead. After a few minutes of anxious waiting, the soldiers quickly led NPR’s team back through the woods to the cars.
We climbed into the vehicles and sped off. Lytvynov, the former driver who volunteered to fight and serve as our escort, quickly drove across the rutted road and grabbed the SUV’s steering wheel.
Then he suddenly lost control. The military SUV drove into a wheat field and then overcorrected, swerving into the woods and hitting a tree. Two members of NPR’s team were injured in the crash. Lytvynov was pronounced dead at the scene by the Ukrainian military.
Ukrainian soldiers and doctors – including Doc, the field doctor we met earlier in the day – would help evacuate us from the gray zone to a military hospital at a safe distance.
Later, Ukrainian authorities investigating the incident said they believed the accident happened after the SUV was attacked by Russian mortars or artillery.
NPR’s team did not hear or see enemy fire. What we actually observed is how quickly things change in this confusing, often terrifying combat zone. On a summer afternoon, a forest or farm field or a village road can turn deadly almost without warning.
We also saw the terrible price Ukrainian soldiers, like Oleksandr Lytvynov, are paying as they struggle to push Russia’s army out of their territory.