KOBZARTSIUKRAINE: The thrill of precision artillery strike faded as the Ukrainian defenders of the last village before the Russian invaders cowered for safety in the shattered remains of a school.
Puffs of smoke revealed where the Russians had suffered their last casualties along the flat and almost completely lifeless terrain of the Ukrainian southern front.
A drone hovering somewhere above the clouded horizon returned images suggesting that two Russians had been killed in one of the artillery strikes.
The news created a brief stir among the middle-aged men in the huge howitzer the Ukrainians had briefly thrown into an open field.
But a day of heavy return fire on what remained of the frontline village of Kobzartsi threatened to get significantly worse as the sun set.
Two paramedics stationed with the unit exchanged knowing glances and took a few steps back into the protective ruins of the nearby gymnasium.
“They don’t let us forget that they are still there,” Andriy, a 24-year-old welder turned doctor, said of the Russians stationed on the other side of the pitch.
“It can go wrong here,” acknowledged his slightly older partner Oleksiy.
Men and others serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine conceal their full identities for military security reasons.
“But we know their team is suffering a lot more than us,” Oleksiy said with a hint of a smile.
Such confidence could prove vital as Ukraine attempts to prevent a forceful counter-offensive from the north from stalling in the treacherous southern steppes.
Ukraine’s ultimate goal is Kherson – a gateway city to both Kremlin- ​​annexed Crimea and the Sea of ​​Azov coastline, which fell under full Russian control during the war.
Military analysts believe the Ukrainians have about six weeks before winter frost will make any further advances much more difficult to achieve.
But the Russians are digging.
An aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Moscow had sent additional reinforcements and now had 30 battalion battle groups around Kherson.
Each of these fully equipped units has up to 800 soldiers and controls a specific section of the front.
“It’s a massive military force that will be very difficult to break,” presidential aide Oleksiy Arestovych warned this week.
Artillery battles in the areas just north of Kherson are fought by tanks and other big guns across open fields filled with almost nothing but ruins.
The Kobzartsi settlement is one of many on the battle map of Ukraine that almost no longer exists.
Its two main streets are lined with skeletal remains of cottages and piles of rubble where larger buildings once stood.
The soldiers said that a few dozen residents are still hiding in their cellars.
But few spend time above ground because of both the shelling and the danger of unexploded ordnance strewn across roads and vegetable gardens.
“They almost always hide,” said doctor Oleksiy.
“We try to help and some volunteer groups sometimes deliver supplies. But there’s not much you can do.”
The artillery unit commander is a chiseled 47-year-old man who named his dog Javelina and took the nom de guerre Anaconda.
The dog’s name pays homage to the US anti-tank missile that played a crucial role in repelling Russia’s assault on Kyiv in the first month of war.
But Anaconda admits he didn’t really know how to use modern weapons when he was recalled from his job in the customs service when Russia invaded on February 24.
“You feel bad when you shoot something and miss. You really get depressed,” Anaconda said with a self-deprecating laugh.
“But we’re really trying our best. We’re learning as we go. We’re getting better every day.”

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