On the first day of the counter-offensive in southern Ukraine, Mark Ayres fired over 2,000 rounds from his Soviet-designed PK machine gun in fierce firefights with Russian forces.
The former British soldier is working with a Ukrainian army reconnaissance unit in the battle to retake the southern region of Kherson, one of only three foreigners on the team.
“The fighting was pretty intense, with lots and lots of shelling,” Ayres, 48, told CNN. “We fought very hard and took the Russian positions we were supposed to take.”
Ayres was seriously wounded by shrapnel in his left leg on the second day of the counteroffensive, along with four other wounded from his unit.
But despite losses on the frontline, he said Ukrainian forces were making slow but some progress on the ground.
“It won’t be fast; it’s hard, slow fought, meter by meter, position by position, because we don’t have the resources to do a massive blitzkrieg, with masses of artillery and armor,” Ayres said. “So we have to do it smartly and try to do it (with) as few casualties as possible.”
So far, the Ukrainians claim to have taken a small handful of settlements in the Kherson region during the offensive, gains which British intelligence experts say were likely achieved through a “degree of tactical surprise “.
Ayres, from London, fought alongside former US Marine Michael Zafer Ronin, who was also injured last week at the start of the counter-offensive, injured by shrapnel in the head, stomach and hand .
The couple originally met while fighting alongside Kurdish fighters in Syria. Now they are recovering in hospitals in the city of Odessa on the beleaguered Black Sea coast in southern Ukraine.
Zafer Ronin, 34, from Kansas, said the morale of Ukraine’s frontline army was still “pretty high”, but in contrast, the opposing Russian forces seemed “a bit unprofessional and unorganized”. .
Both men arrived at the start of the war as volunteers, then enlisted as paid soldiers for the Ukrainian army with three-year contracts.
Ayres said he came to join the fight because he was “inspired” by the spirit of the Ukrainian people.
“It was (between) good and bad,” Ayres said. “It was an unprovoked attack on a sovereign country.” He has “no sympathy” for Russian soldiers, he added.
Video shows Ukraine attack on key bridge used by Russia
Their main challenge on the battlefield is to be outgunned and outnumbered by their Russian counterparts. Frontline units are well supplied with small arms and ammunition, but lack heavy weapons like artillery and tanks, Ayres said. A limited number of weapons supplied by the United States and NATO, such as HIMARS, howitzers and Javelin anti-tank missile systems, have proven useful in this fight, but they are not enough to match the power of fire from their opponents.
“They’re constantly pounding us with artillery, so that’s what makes it so much harder, the artillery and armor they have is superior to ours,” Ayres said. “Our strikes are more surgical, but more limited.”
On Saturday, a report by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said that according to Ukrainian officials the offensive was “an intentionally methodical operation aimed at degrading Russian forces and logistics, rather than a operation aimed at immediately recapturing large swaths of territory.”
Ayres has a white beard and his Ukrainian comrades nicknamed him “Grandfather”. But he has already won the trust of his younger colleagues.
“As soon as they’ve seen you in combat and they know you’re here to stay, and they know you’re a capable soldier, you immediately earn their respect,” Ayres said.
Ayres spent his late teens as a Royal Green Jacket – a British Army infantry regiment – and now feels like this battle has given him a new purpose.
“Coming home, I’m nothing, I’m just an old geezer renting a room,” Ayres said. “Whereas now, I’m a soldier, I’m doing something good, I’m fighting.”
His son is proud of what he does, he adds.
For these two injured foreign fighters, their next goal is not to return home safely, but only to get back to the front lines to join the fight as soon as they can.
“Once everything has healed on my body, probably within three to four weeks, I should be back there,” Zafer Ronin said.
“Of course I will go back,” Ayres added. “Because I am a soldier.”