Impenetrable Woods. The thick Serebryansky Forest obstructs Russian advances. But it can also be a frightening trap for Ukrainian soldiers, when shells unleash a fiery wave, changing the landscape in an instant.
Impenetrable Woods. The thick Serebryansky Forest obstructs Russian advances. But it can also be a frightening trap for Ukrainian soldiers, when shells unleash a fiery wave, changing the landscape in an instant. © Media Unit, Ukraine National Guard, 13th Khartiya Brigade

Holding on in the Magical Forest

Tough terrain makes the attack - and defence - of the Lyman pocket a challenging prospect for both sides.

Friday, 15 March, 2024

On the frontlines beyond Yampil – a village 35 kilometres northeast of the main free Donetsk city of Kramatorsk – the sandy ground and thick blanket of the Serebryansky Forest obstruct a Russian advance and provide cover from drones.

Yet when incoming artillery hits, everything changes in a flash. Soldiers on night patrol dive – into a trench if near or the dirt if not. When they rise, the woods are aflame.

Burning trees are felled in every direction, and paths have disappeared. Disoriented, maybe injured or with wounded, they can no longer find a clear way out.

They call it the magical forest.

“The shelling, it’s an explosive wave, the fire makes everything unrecognisable,” said Oleksandr, 42, a medic with the National Guard 13th Khartiya Brigade stationed in Yampil.

“When it starts, soldiers run away but they can’t see anything. They fall, hit their knees, hit the ground, hit spikes. When they get up, the forest is different, it has all changed.”

Oleksandr, medic with the National Guard, 13th Khartiya Brigade.

The cover has been transformed into a trap.

This is the challenge of defending the Lyman pocket. Over the past year, Ukraine’s line here has held, largely due to the terrain, which is harsh for both sides. But Ukrainian units are increasingly feeling the shortage of weaponry as well as the depletion of men.

Lyman and surrounding villages are a red zone. As the road becomes enveloped by forest, an enhanced checkpoint by a defunct railway line emerges, impassable without prior approval.

Amid destroyed petrol stations and downed power lines, there are occasional memorials to soldiers – stone plaques and Ukrainian flags, marking battles over the past decade.

Beyond the battered and emptied town, the forest thickens further, and tarmac disappears. Winding along a deeply pitted mud track, each natural scene reveals a defensive position: a covered trench, a log-protected firing post or, deep in a clearing, several armoured vehicles.

Electronic jamming means mobile phones and GPS cease functioning, and the route through the thick woods becomes unclear.

In a small settlement past the woods, a unit of five soldiers are tucked into a small house – compact, stuffed with military gear, warm. One solider dozes on a cot; two are hunched over a screen on a video war game.

Sergii, anti-tank battery commander with the National Guard, 13th Khartiya Brigade.

“The situation on the front line, it's pretty tense right now,” said Sergii, 51, sitting in the tiny kitchen. Head of a plumbing company in Kyiv two years ago, he is now commander of the 13th Brigade’s anti-tank battery.

“After taking Avdiivka, the enemy is transferring all its reserves to our direction. So, day by day, we're waiting for the situation to get worse. We can already see it with increased artillery shelling at our positions. They are getting ready to receive additional forces and preparing for something,” he continued.

“Their goal is to completely occupy Luhansk and Donetsk regions, so Kupiansk and Lyman are among the towns they want to occupy again. We are defending this piece of the frontline.”

Despite the disparity in capabilities, he said Russian forces have made gains of less than a kilometre in the forest over the past year, adding, “For such a powerful army, this is nothing.”

Part of the 60-kilometre Kupiansk-Svatove-Kreminna defence, the line is vital to prevent Russia from again encircling Kharkiv or surging in the direction of Dnipro.

“Why can't the Russians [manage to] occupy Serebryansky for more than a year? Because where there is forest, it’s harder for them to advance, and easier for us to defend,” the commander said.

The Russians’ immediate objective here is the River Zherebets, or Stallion. It is straddled by two villages, Zarichne on the near side and over the water, Torske.

“The terrain of the forest changes every time we go in"

Recently, Russians advanced some distance across open terrain, and are now skirting Torske.

“They are trying to get us off from that river, and they are advancing at the areas of the front line where they are can, due to the territory and their greater capabilities,” Sergii said.

Yet this kind of warfare is harsh for the Ukrainians, too.

“Battles in the forest are very different from battles in the countryside, very difficult,” said Yuri, 32, a former baker, who has been fighting for the past ten years.

“First of all, it’s sand. You are constantly falling down,” he continued. “And there are a lot of drones, so you have to do everything secretly, preferably at night or before dawn.”

Emptied Village. Outside of Lyman, in the Donetsk region, the frontline is 10 kilometres away, and villages like Yampil and others are sparsely populated. © Anthony Borden

Weighed down by heavy packs, including gear and supplies for a long day in position – heading out before sunrise and only rotating back after dark – movement itself is a challenge. Injuries and severe strains to backs and joints can disable soldiers even when the enemy does not.

“The terrain of the forest changes every time we go in,” Yuri said. “We go five by five. And every time, it’s like the first time you have come there.”

According to the soldiers, Russian infantry assaults have been ineffective because of the tight and swampy terrain, while armoured vehicles cannot navigate the woods either.

As a result, the main threat comes from mortars, artillery and air bombs, and the ubiquitous drones.

“We are facing two types,” explained Sergii, the commander. “Small drones, FPV [first-person view] and reconnaissance, which work up to five kilometres, and tactical Lancet drones, which can reach up to 40 kilometres.”

Oleksandr, medic with the National Guard, 13th Khartiya Brigade.

Russians are currently focusing on logistics and supplies, men and equipment moving to and from the front, meaning that vehicles are under particular risk, even when several towns away.

A Russian Lancet drone recently took out an artillery piece on the road between Sloviansk and Lyman, 40 kilometres from the front, according to Sergii.

Mounted drone jamming (REB) technology provides some protection over vehicles and properties, while anti-drone electronic guns can disable individual threats. But the drone traffic is so heavy, soldiers can have difficulty determining which are foe and which are friend. Sometimes they knock out their own.

The main problem remains the shortage of weaponry, especially artillery and mortars. Sergii explains that Russians fire four artillery shells for each Ukrainian one, and the situation is getting worse. This is aside from powerful KAB guided aerial bombs, which the Ukrainians cannot match.

“A group with one mortar, if it has enough ammunition and supply, can stop any assault on our positions,” said the commander. “But there's no point in a mortar if it doesn't shoot, if [the operator] doesn't have anything to shoot with.”

The need to ration weapons forces Ukrainian troops to incur higher risks. Because they cannot spend shells dispersing Russian soldiers assembling for assault, they must wait until the attack commences. The smaller Ukrainian units also make them more vulnerable.

"We must change, we must constantly adapt"

“Since we have to save ammunition,” the commander said, “we cannot prevent their attacks, and we have to let them accumulate their assets. Then, when they open themselves and go into assault, that’s when we are tasked to shoot.”

A typical forward Ukrainian position will be made up of six to eight soldiers, based in a trench of 10-15 metres with shelters and blindages, holding200-250 metres of the frontline. To take the position, Sergii explains, Russian forces will send at least 30-40 troops. When they successfully rebuff an advance, the Ukrainians will lose two or three people, against 25-30 Russian casualties.

“The losses are much less when you are defending, and for the Russians, advancing, trying to take our positions, we are destroying their personnel and their equipment, weakening them,” Sergii said. But still, Ukraine takes losses and spends ammunition.

Typically, each assault is then followed up by artillery shelling. And the Russians will come again.

“Sometimes they are sending these groups three or four in a row, 30 and 40 people, they are coming one group and then another and then another,” he said.

The shear amount of death, even of the enemy, is psychologically wearing. “If you see people dying in front of you, in groups, in hundreds, that is itself exhausting,” he added.

Tired, under-manned and under-equipped, the forest fighters of the 13th Brigade expect a fresh Russian assault as enemy troops are transferred up from the fallen Avdiivka.

While the Russians probe weaknesses, Ukrainians have learned to calculate risk precisely. Because of the targeting of logistics, for example, it may be safer to be 200 kilometres from the frontline than a kilometre or so.

The soldiers are also flexible. When one type of mortar shell runs out, they find ways to adapt the munitions available for the weapons they have.

As they have been forced to do in the woods, they find ways to cope.

“Shelling turns everything into something new, changes houses, buildings, forests – the path is gone,” said Oleksandr, the medic. “So, we must change, we must constantly adapt to the situation.”

Translation and additional reporting by Mykhaylo Shtekel.

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