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A young officer hopes to turn the tide of war, as Ukraine fights to retake a key city

As Ukraine mounts its first major offensive against Russia, 29-year-old Col. Serhiy Shatalov leads a battalion of 600 men in some of the heaviest fighting. "This is war," he says. "You cannot predict nothing, absolutely nothing."
Brian Mann/NPR
As Ukraine mounts its first major offensive against Russia, 29-year-old Col. Serhiy Shatalov leads a battalion of 600 men in some of the heaviest fighting. "This is war," he says. "You cannot predict nothing, absolutely nothing."

APOSTOLOVE, Ukraine — In a battered building surrounded by an iron fence and an overgrown garden, an aide offers tea while we wait to meet Col. Serhiy Shatalov. Just 29 years old, Shatalov leads the 98th Infantry Battalion, which is pushing south toward Russian-occupied Kherson, part of Ukraine's first major counteroffensive of the war.

His force is made up of roughly 600 men, many of them civilians just a few months ago. Shatalov, a stocky man with a couple days' growth beard and close-cropped black hair, is wearing simple combat fatigues.

"They are 11 kilometers away," he says, referring to the Russian soldiers — about 7 miles.

They'd been closer, threatening the outskirts of this half-abandoned industrial town. But Shatalov's men had steadily pushed them back over several weeks of hard fighting across a maze of farm fields, rivers, villages and old industrial sites.

Speaking to Ukrainian media, Ukraine's Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said Russia has already been forced to redeploy troops to the Kherson area in order to hold the city. Britain's Defense Ministry, meanwhile, issued an intelligence report confirming Ukraine had used long-range artillery provided by the West to threaten key bridges used by Russia to supply their defending troops.

"This is war," Shatalov says. "You cannot predict nothing, absolutely nothing."

Retaking Kherson would be "a good revenge"

Victory here is far from certain, but Ukrainian officials have said they could retake Kherson as early as September. It's an important transport hub with a bridge crossing the Dnipro River near the Black Sea.

"We are advanced already," Shatalov says, speaking rough but practicable English. "The area I'm operating in is very hard, it's open ground with small forests. The enemy can detect you very well, so it's tricky sometimes."

His troops still face fierce opposition. As Shatalov speaks, he is interrupted regularly by air raid sirens and by the rumble of Russian tanks firing salvos in the distance.

Liberating Kherson would be the biggest victory for Ukraine's army since it broke the siege of Kyiv. It also would be a major embarrassment for Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Ukraine's counteroffensive in Kherson is gathering momentum," British officials concluded. "The most politically significant population center occupied by Russia is now virtually cut off from the other occupied territories."

According to Shatalov, Russia is attempting to hold the territory it occupied in the south using a mix of troops.

"Sometimes we encounter real strong guys, airborne guys," he says.

But other times, by his account, Russian units are disorganized, poorly trained, showing low morale or appearing to be frightened.

Shatalov acknowledges his own troops are also a mix of experienced combat infantry, some weary after months of fighting, serving alongside new recruits. But he says Ukrainian morale remains high.

"When we lost some guys, everybody including me felt not very well," Shatalov says, referring to casualties suffered by his battalion. "But after that, we realize it's war. It made my guys angry and [we want to] provide a good revenge for them."

With the help of U.S. training, Ukraine's officers hope to out-lead the Russians

The U.S. and other Western countries are counting on officers like Shatalov to give Ukraine a crucial edge in this war.

Despite many setbacks and humiliations, Russia still fields one of the largest armies in the world with a sizable advantage in artillery and tanks. Ukraine is still often outmanned and outgunned.

But Ukraine has military leaders trained by the U.S. Marine Corps' Expeditionary Warfare School under a Western style of command. It's widely seen by military experts as more nimble and proactive than the bureaucratic, Soviet-era style of leadership used by the Russian army

A report in June by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that "poor leadership within the Russian army and a highly centralized Russian command and control structure" contributed to Russia's struggles in Ukraine.

Shatalov, by contrast, just returned from a training course for Ukrainian officers in Virginia. He's convinced that education is a game-changer. "A [battalion] commander like me, I can provide my decision [quickly]," he says. "I can decide what my guys [are] supposed to be doing right now, not waiting for a special order."

But he acknowledges retaking Kherson will be costly and says the fight will become harder in the days and weeks ahead. He notes his troops are pushing deeper into towns and villages where many civilians are ethnic Russians.

"Mostly pro-Russian," he says, noting that his soldiers have been given strict instructions: "Do not talk to anybody."

He compares the environment in southern Ukraine to the U.S. war in Vietnam, where it was often impossible to tell friend from enemy.

Given the many challenges that remain, Shatalov declines to say how long he believes it will take to liberate Kherson.

"I do not know, to be honest. I was thinking at first it was going to be very fast. But now it's like absolutely unpredictable," he says.

For a soldier still in his late 20s, leading troops in a grinding ground war is also a heavy personal burden. He's seen his men die and suffer terrible wounds.

"It is very hard for me, very hard to make the decisions," Shatalov says. "But it's [for] something higher, this commitment for the Ukrainian people."

After a pause, he says: "I can be killed also. I have no insurance and nobody has."

Polina Lytvynova contributed to this report.

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Corrected: August 5, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous web version, we incorrectly say that Ukraine's military leaders are trained by the U.S. Army. In fact, they are trained by the U.S. Marine Corps' Expeditionary Warfare School.
Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.