Putin Shares New Details on Wagner and Prigozhin: Live Updates on Russia-Ukraine War

Even while commanding troops in a week-long fierce fight to capture a Russian position, Colonel Viktor Sikoza received disturbing news: the Russians were using this time to build another fortification behind it.

“They are still building their defenses,” Colonel Sikoza said. They “keep doing it” even as Ukraine is moving forward, albeit slowly, in a high-stakes counter-offensive in the south of the country.

Troops under Colonel Sikoza, commander of the 36th Marine Brigade, spearheaded the push into Ukraine and advanced about five miles into a bulge of Russian lines in southern Ukraine.

Colonel Sikoza is only a commander, but his account matches Ukrainian reports of heavily entrenched Russian positions. For the past week, Colonel Sikoza has been supervising an assault on a forest partially surrounded by low-lying swampy terrain. Russian forces had dug and undermined the only ground around solid enough to support armored vehicles. The attack, he said, had to take place on foot.

The infantry seeped into the forest and fought at close quarters, he said. “We are Marines, we are aggressive,” she said. A company of Russian soldiers, about 80 men, was dug in trenches in the trees, he said. Colonel Sikoza described how a decisive breakthrough came when his troops captured two bunkers and a trench line at the edge of the forest, partially cutting off the Russians’ ability to supply the group and forcing them to withdraw.

Its soldiers are strongly motivated to capture positions, and with them the Russian prisoners: in the first month of the war, the 36th Marine Brigade was surrounded in the city of Mariupol and more than 1,000 marines were taken prisoner by the Russians. “We want to exchange them for our guys,” Colonel Sikoza said of the Russian prisoners.

Colonel Sikoza’s advance south is also a personal odyssey. He fled the Crimean peninsula when Russia occupied it in 2014. If the counter-offensive is successful, it could put Ukrainian artillery within range to threaten the isthmus towards the peninsula, cutting off Russian supply lines.

But it was painfully slow. President Volodymyr Zelensky has admitted the counteroffensive is not progressing as quickly as some allies had hoped, and US officials said Ukraine was losing Western-supplied armored vehicles in minefields.

“For more than a year, the enemy has fortified itself here,” Colonel Sikoza said in an interview at a picnic table under the shade of a walnut tree in the courtyard of his command post near the front. Every minute or so the outgoing and incoming artillery shells rang out.

Regarding the Ukrainian effort to advance, he acknowledged: “It will not go at the pace we were counting on.”

In front of the Ukrainian bulge at this point, the Russians have completed a third line of defense, Colonel Sikoza said. They put up additional concrete tank barriers of a type Ukrainians call dragon’s teeth. And they’ve deployed additional troops.

There is little he can do about it, he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have enough precision weapons to hit long-range targets” behind the Russian front lines. The additional defenses, he said, would further slow Ukraine down.

However, Colonel Sikoza’s troops achieved some successes.

One soldier, who asked to be identified only by rank and name for security reasons, Lieutenant Yevhen, said he shot down a Russian attack helicopter using a Javelin anti-tank guided missile, a rare feat with a weapon intended primarily to strike ground targets.

And although the brigade mainly operates Soviet-heritage artillery systems, it was able to hit a Russian barracks far behind the front line, Ukrainian officials said. A group of Russian soldiers had posted a video on social media complaining about poor living conditions and what they said were unreasonable orders from commanders.

Lieutenant Denys Ryabynko, who commands a Grad rocket artillery unit, was less interested in the denunciation than in the distinctive brick building in the background. The Ukrainians were able to identify him in a village behind Russian lines and hit him with a barrage of rockets, he said.

Yuri Shvala contributed report.