Near the city of Kherson, Ukraine
Shattered metal, charred debris and broken glass cover the ground as a Ukrainian reconnaissance unit storms a Russian command center on the outskirts of the recently liberated city of Kherson.
“Come here,” one of the Ukrainian soldiers suddenly calls out. “Bring the stretcher and first-aid kit here.”
Moments later, a Russian soldier emerges from a bunker, wounded in the hind legs. He is being treated by Ukrainian soldiers who lay him face down on the ground and administer first aid.
“We were pinned down here and everyone ran away,” he tells the Ukrainian soldiers. “I fell down and lay there until evening. They came and took my captain and that was it. They said they would come back for me but no one came.”
The exchange was recorded by the reconnaissance team and shared with CNN. It offers a valuable insight into the grueling struggle for the key southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, which culminated earlier this month in a Russian withdrawal from a swathe of land on the west bank of the Dnipro River, a major setback to the Kremlin’s war.
The Ukrainian unit says the Russian soldier was taken to safety and his wounds treated. But many of those sent here by the Kremlin faced a very different outcome.
“They had the big casualties here,” reconnaissance unit head Andrii Pidlisnyi told CNN, checking this with some other footage he and his unit have collected over the past few months.
The 28-year-old captain with the callsign “Sneaky” lives up to his name in Russian positions.
Its forces operated so close to enemy lines that they say they can hear Russian soldiers talking, cooking, or chopping wood. The unit identified targets both visually and using drones, then relayed coordinates to Ukrainian artillery for targeting.
This unit includes some of the better trained international volunteers who have come to Ukraine since the war began. These volunteers, originally from the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Germany, among other European nations, have a history of serving their respective militaries and some have prior experience fighting with Kurdish forces against ISIS in Syria.
In a drone video shared with CNN, Moscow’s soldiers are seen running into a trench as artillery shells rain down on them. The first salvos missed the target a bit. But the recon soldiers use the drone to send tiny adjustments to the gunners. Seconds later, clouds of smoke and dust rise from the Russian bunkers and trenches.
The horror of being under such bombardment is illustrated by the sight of Russian soldiers running frantically and futilely through the dust, searching for safety and cover as more and more high-explosive shells fall around them.
In the summer and autumn, this was the pattern of the war on the Kherson front. The Ukrainian reconnaissance soldiers said that Russia has the advantage in terms of the number of weapons – “80 shots to our 20,” says Pidlisnyi. But modern weapons from NATO and other Western allies sent to Ukraine then gave them an advantage in terms of accuracy. Eventually, the Russians withdrew after taking what Pidlisnyi estimated “50%” casualties.
“They lost a lot of people… because of our intelligence, because of our artillery and because of our missile system, especially HIMARS and so on,” he says. “Before they retreated, they lost about 90 tanks in the last month alone.”
“It’s a big loss for them, especially since they don’t have that much new equipment to bring to the front lines,” adds the scout leader.
The jubilation that followed Ukraine’s success in pushing Russia east of the west bank of the Dnieper was a rather new mood for Pidlisnyi and his men.
“It’s been months and months of frustration,” says Jordan O’Brien. The 29-year-old New Zealander says he has flown around the world to do his part in “standing up against bullies” and has been fighting as part of an anti-tank unit in southern Ukraine since June.
“We found it difficult to influence the battlefield, it was very difficult to actually get to a position where we could see Russian armor,” says O’Brien. “It was dew in really deep.”
The Briton Macer Gifford sees it similarly. “The last few months have been absolutely intense,” says the 35-year-old Syrian war veteran. “The Russians used just about every dirty tactic in the book, including massive bombings of civilian areas. So it’s just incredibly dangerous, tiring, soul-destroying.”
Russian troops captured Kherson and the surrounding area in the first month of their invasion of Ukraine. They had time to dig in and consolidate their positions before Kyiv announced a counteroffensive in the summer. Russia used heavy artillery to keep Ukrainian forces at bay and increased its barrage just before retreating.
“The last few weeks in particular have been pretty intense because we’ve received a huge amount of artillery,” says Gifford. The unit survived, but the pressure was immense. “If there’s anything you’re going to break in this country, it’s artillery,” adds O’Brien. “Fortunately everyone is strong.”
Pidlisnyi and his men were overcome with a sense of relief upon hearing of a possible Russian retreat across the Dnieper.
Sneaky says Moscow’s armies began their retreat from Kherson under cover of darkness on November 8-9, shifting their second and third lines of defense towards Kherson and nearby villages. Their first line of defense was the last to move in the morning, Pidlisnyi says, leaving behind several rows of land mines to cover their retreat in hopes of ambushing and slowing down Ukrainian forces.
By November 10, all Russian forces on the west bank had fallen back near the Dnipro and were beginning to cross to the east bank, Pidlisnyi says. On November 11, the withdrawal was complete and confirmed by the Russian Defense Ministry on its official Telegram channel.
Bronx native Damien Rodriguez, the unit’s demolitions expert, says he had trouble believing the Russians just picked up and left.
‘This is what liberation looks like’: Ukraine recaptures Kherson
“We heard rumours, but we weren’t sure,” says 41-year-old veteran of the Kurdish campaign against ISIS Rodriguez. “I didn’t really believe it 100% until we got down to the ground and saw they all left their positions.”
The months of struggle were worth it in the end, he says.
“You see the villagers… you see everyone crying and thanking us for helping… for helping liberate their village,” says Rodriguez. “It was the same as in Syria when we liberated villages from ISIS.”
“The amount of people coming out onto the streets, it honestly felt like WWII… people were throwing flowers at us and stuff. It was incredible,” adds Gifford.
After chaotic withdrawals first from Kyiv and then from Kharkiv, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that the withdrawal from Kherson was a calculated decision, professionally executed.
“Not a single piece of military equipment or weapons was left on the right bank,” the ministry said.
But ‘Sneaky’ and his unit deny this account. Although Russian soldiers had about a week to prepare to leave, they left in a hurry anyway.
“We came with another intelligence unit to check their positions and found that they ran out of the front row very quickly, leaving a lot of stuff, documents and so on behind,” explains Pidlisnyi.
A video shared by the unit with CNN shows dozens of boxes of ammunition, military and personal documents. “They left behind a huge amount of ordnance, from anti-aircraft to grenades to small arms,” says Gifford.
This was a welcome surprise to the men in the unit.
“I was able to snag some really nice stuff because we could be better equipped here in Ukraine, we’re low on ammo,” Rodriguez explains. “I use a drone and I drop all kinds of payloads and I set up booby traps, so I have some good detonators and extra grenades.
“We call it a redistribution of resources,” he adds.