As Ukraine battles to retake a crucial city, a young commander fights to change the course of the conflict.

A battalion of 600 soldiers is under the command of Col. Serhiy Shatalov, 29, as Ukraine launches its first significant offensive against Russia. He declares, “This is war.” Nothing, absolutely nothing, is predictable.

Ukraine APOSTOLOVE, Brian Mann/NPR While we wait to meet Col. Serhiy Shatalov, an assistant serves tea in a dilapidated structure encircled by an iron gate and an unkempt garden. As part of Ukraine’s first significant counteroffensive of the conflict, Shatalov, who is only 29 years old, commands the 98th Infantry Battalion as it advances south toward the Russian-occupied city of Kherson.

His force consists of about 600 men, many of whom were just recently civilians. Shatalov is a short, stocky man with close-cropped black hair and a few days’ growth in his beard. He is dressed in basic battle fatigues.

He says of the Russian military, who are located approximately 7 miles distant, “They are at a distance of 11 kilometers.”

They had been nearer, posing a threat to the industrial town’s periphery. But during several weeks of fierce combat over a confusing network of farm fields, rivers, villages, and abandoned industrial sites, Shatalov’s soldiers had progressively drove them back.

Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the Ukrainian Security Council, claimed that Russia had already been compelled to relocate soldiers to the Kherson region in order to maintain control of the city. While this was going on, the British Defense Ministry released an intelligence report showing that Ukraine had threatened important Russian supply bridges by using long-range artillery given by the West.

This is war, adds Shatalov. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is predictable.

KHERSON’S DETENTION WOULD BE “A GOOD REVERSE” The outcome of this battle is far from clear, but according to Ukrainian officials, Kherson could be retaken as early as September. It is a significant transportation center that is close to the Black Sea and has a bridge across the Dnipro River.

Speaking in a crude but usable form of English, Shatalov declares, “We are advanced already.” “It’s open terrain with sparse woodlands where I’m working, and it’s quite difficult. It can be challenging at times because the opposition is quite good at detecting you.”

Strong resistance still exists for his forces. Shatalov’s speech is frequently cut short by air raid sirens and the distant roar of Russian tanks firing salvos.

The biggest achievement for the Ukrainian army since it ended the siege of Kiev would be the liberation of Kherson. Additionally, Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin would suffer greatly.

The counteroffensive by Ukraine in Kherson is gaining strength, according to British officials concluded . The largest Russian-controlled population center is now essentially cut off from the other occupied territories.

Shatalov claims that Russia is employing a combination of forces to try to hold the region it invaded in the south.
We occasionally run with really powerful, airborne guys, he adds.
He claims that Russian forces occasionally display organizational issues, inadequate training, low morale, or the appearance of being scared.

Shatalov concedes that his own forces are made up of both inexperienced combat infantry and fresh recruits, some of whom are worn out after months of combat. But he claims that morale in Ukraine is still high.

When his regiment suffered casualties, Shatalov adds, “Everyone, including me, felt not very well when we lost some guys.” “But then we understand it’s war. My boys are upset about it, and “we” want to get them well-deserved retribution.”

UKRAINE’S OFFICERS HOPE TO OUTPERFORM THE RUSSIANS WITH THE HELP OF U.S. TRAINING Officers like Shatalov are what the U.S. and other Western nations are depending on to give Ukraine a vital advantage in this conflict.

Russia still has one of the biggest militaries in the world, with a significant edge in artillery and tanks, despite many defeats and humiliations. Still, Ukraine is frequently outnumbered and outarmed.

But Ukraine has military officials who have received U.S. Army training and have been given Western-style orders. Military analysts generally agree that it is more agile and pro-active than the bureaucratic, Soviet-era leadership style employed by the Russian army.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ report from June concluded that “weak leadership within the Russian army and a highly centralized Russian command and control system” led to Russia’s difficulties in Ukraine.

Shatalov, on the other hand, recently got back from a Virginia training session for Ukrainian officers. He firmly believes that education alters the playing field. As a “battalion commander,” he claims, “I can provide my decision “immediately.” “I don’t need to wait for a special order; I can decide what my guys ‘are’ meant to be doing right now.”

However, he admits that retaking Kherson will be expensive and predicts that the battle will get tougher in the next days and weeks. He observes that his men are advancing more into towns and villages where many of the residents are of Russian ancestry.

He describes them as being “mostly pro-Russian” and mentions that his forces had been given tight orders to “not talk to anyone.”
He likens the situation in southern Ukraine to the American conflict in Vietnam, where it was frequently difficult to distinguish between allies and enemies.
Shatalov declines to estimate how long it will take to free Kherson given the numerous obstacles that still need to be overcome.
“I’ll be honest; I have no idea. I initially believed it would happen quickly. However, it’s now completely unpredictable, “He claims.

Leading troops in a grueling ground conflict is a demanding personal responsibility for a soldier who is still in his late 20s. He has witnessed his men die and sustain awful injuries.

Shatalov states, “It is really difficult for me, very difficult to make the decisions.” However, this dedication to the Ukrainian people is “for” something higher.
He pauses before saying: “I too could be killed. Nobody has insurance except for me.”
This article was contributed to by Polina Lytvynova.