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 fighters, who identified themselves only by their names, Viktor and Serhiy, said they had spotted a Russian drone overhead.
We were in a dense forest, protected by the treetops. But apparently the drone was observing our location, possibly sharing our position with Russian artillery or other units.
“It’s hovering over us as we speak,” said Viktor. “She’s close while we’re here. She’s going to fly away and then we can go back.”
It was a terrifying moment. For the first time, we feel some of the fear experienced every day by thousands of Ukrainian soldiers since the Russian 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 retake Kherson is Ukraine’s first major counteroffensive against Russia.
That morning, the NPR 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 talk with soldiers who were taking part in the first major counteroffensive against Russia: an effort to recapture the strategic transportation hub of Kherson.
Our first stop was an abandoned factory where a burly man with a bushy black beard waited in the back of a Ukrainian army ambulance. Calling himself “Doc”, he punched the medical supplies strapped to his bulletproof vest. “I carry everything I need with me,” he said.
Like many Ukrainian soldiers, Doc agreed to be interviewed only if NPR used a nickname.
On this day, he was waiting. There were no patients at that hour, just the distant rumble of Russian tank fire. Doc said that when wounded soldiers arrive at this rendezvous point, they are often in “really bad shape,” wounded by fearsome enemy artillery.
“We need to give them injections quickly, stabilize them,” he said.
From this remote outpost, the wounded are transported in their ambulance or other vehicles to military hospitals for additional care.
According to reports from the British and American intelligence services, the 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 recapture a major city, occupied by Russia since the first days of the invasion.
Much of the fighting is carried out by soldiers who were civilians not so long ago.
Asked what he expects to happen when Ukraine’s first major counteroffensive advances toward Kherson, Doc shrugged and pointed to the waiting stretchers.
“There will definitely be more casualties,” he said.
Why is Kherson important?
A victory here could change the course of the war.
It would demonstrate Ukraine’s ability to handle high-tech Western artillery effectively, while using ground troops to seize and hold key territory.
Losing Kherson, a key bridge crossing and regional government center on the Dnipro River, would also deal a major blow to Moscow’s official narrative that the war is a “limited” military operation, which Russia still claims to be winning.
A short drive from the ambulance station brought us closer to the active fight. The pounding of Russian tank fire sounded more frequently, like a distant summer storm.
Even Ukrainian soldiers who have been fighting here for months say the “gray area” is a vast and confusing place. It stretches in a rough arc from the war-torn villages on the outskirts of Kryvyi Rih, about 100 miles north of Kherson, to Mykolaiv, a city near the Black Sea.
The line of active combat between Ukrainian and Russian units changes daily, as troops move through former industrial sites, half-abandoned towns, farm fields, winding rivers and dense forests.
Russian units continue to respond
Our next stop was a badly damaged bunker and observation post that recently had to be abandoned due to Russian artillery and missile fire.
“They started hitting us with BM-27 Uragan,” Maj. Oleksandr Lytvynov said, referring to a powerful Soviet-era rocket launcher known as “Hurricane.”
“Then a missile hit this wall from the other side. When we were hit a second time, we made the decision to relocate.”
Descending into a dozen-meter-wide bomb crater, he laughed and said he was lucky to have survived. The Russians’ aim was a bit off.
Before the war, Lytvynov, a man in his 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 location,” he said, holding open the door of a battered SUV.
From this point on, the Ukrainian military required the NPR crew to travel in their vehicles as part of a two-car convoy.
Mile by mile, the countryside seemed increasingly eerily empty: farm buildings punctured by artillery, fields and roads torn by bomb craters. As cars bounced and lurched down bumpy country roads, Lytvynov told us through an interpreter that it’s easy to get lost here.
Soldiers in the gray zone face constant anxiety from Russian drones, snipers and artillery.
Lytvynov pointed to the crop fields where the bronze-yellow wheat will not be harvested this year due to the ever-present danger.
A trench where the Ukrainians held out against Russian tanks
After a 20-minute drive, the vehicles turned into a parking area camouflaged in a tree line. Ukrainian soldiers occupied this area during some of the fiercest weeks of fighting.
“Our company held and fought here, our rank-and-file soldiers lived here and this is still our reserve position,” said a Ukrainian soldier who went by his first name Viktor.
“There were a lot of entrants. We were hit by tanks and mortars.”
On foot, Viktor headed deeper into the trees, where his fellow soldiers had dug their trench about 10 feet deep into the raw earth, roofing it with logs cut from the nearby forest. It was a cramped, cramped, claustrophobic space.
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 differ from person to person. There are people who are afraid, but we also have men who are able to overcome this feeling.”
In recent weeks, the Ukrainian army pushed the Russians back from this point. It has been a bitter and reluctant struggle. An officer interviewed by NPR compared the fighting here to what the United States encountered during some of the toughest battles in Vietnam.
Despite the risk and difficulties, these soldiers seemed confident that Ukraine’s counteroffensive to retake Kherson would succeed.
“We are moving forward and planning to move further,” said Viktor. “So, little by little, we move.”
A Russian drone and a death in the gray zone
But it was at this moment, while the soldiers were confidently talking about Ukraine’s progress pushing Russia back, that the enemy drone appeared overhead. After a few minutes of anxious waiting, the soldiers quickly led the NPR team back through the woods to the cars.
We got into the vehicles and left in a hurry. Lytvynov, the former driver who volunteered to fight and serve as an escort, was driving fast down the bumpy road, clutching the steering wheel of the truck.
Then suddenly he lost control. The military SUV swerved into a wheat field and then overcorrected, veered into the woods and crashed into a tree. Two members of the NPR team were injured in the crash. Lytvynov was pronounced dead at the scene by the Ukrainian army.
Ukrainian soldiers and doctors, including Doc, the field doctor we met earlier that day, would help evacuate us from the gray zone to a military hospital a safe distance away.
Ukrainian authorities investigating the incident later said they believed the accident occurred after the SUV came under Russian mortar or artillery fire.
The NPR team did not hear or see any hostile fire. What we do see firsthand is how quickly things change in this confusing and often terrifying combat zone. On a summer afternoon, a stretch of forest or farm field or a village road can turn deadly with almost no warning.
We also saw the terrible price paid by Ukrainian soldiers, like Oleksandr Lytvynov, as they fight to expel the Russian army from their territory.