Between Front Lines, Ukrainian Reconnaissance Teams Hunt Russian Targets

BARVINKOVE, Ukraine—Walls rattled and pieces of plaster fell from the ceiling of a basement converted by Ukrainian troops into a forward outpost. Russian shells hit again and again the crumpled building above. Images on a surveillance monitor, linked to a camera outside in the deserted village, showed plumes of black smoke rising all around the compound.

“The Russians are very angry today because yesterday we killed two of their tanks,” said Marian, a platoon leader in the volunteer Carpathian Sich battalion deployed on the front line near the Russian-held Ukrainian city of Izyum. Like most military personnel, he is only allowed to provide his first name. “Every soldier here, ask anyone, their biggest dream is to destroy a Muscovite tank,” he said.

This time, soldiers in the village said, they destroyed the Russian tanks by using a re-engineered commercial drone to drop mortar shells on them. The technique is emblematic of the inventive improvisation used by Ukrainian forces in the now three-monthlong war as they face off against Russian units that are usually larger and better armed.

Across the line is Russia’s elite 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division, with modern T-80 tanks. For the past six weeks, it has tried—and failed—to push past the Ukrainians south of Izyum, a key part of Moscow’s efforts to encircle Kyiv’s forces in the Donbas region in the east of the country.

A Ukrainian soldier watches live footage of his position being bombed by Russian forces near Izyum, Ukraine, on Saturday.

Carpathian Sich soldiers watch a live feed of fighting in the area.

Now, with Ukrainian reinforcements arriving on this battalion’s flanks and U.S.-supplied M777 howitzers providing long-range fire support from the rear, troops are preparing for a counterattack and constantly probing enemy positions. “We are shifting from defense to offense. Forces around us are already moving ahead,” said Rusyn, the Carpathian Sich battalion’s deputy commander. “We are getting ready to push them all the way to the border.”

In grinding combat, Russia is making slow progress in some other parts of Donbas, trying to encircle the small salient around Severodonetsk, the capital of the Ukrainian-held part of the Luhansk region, and edging ahead in other sectors of the front. But its advance has been stopped in this area, which used to be the Donbas offensive’s main thrust.

When Russian shelling paused around midday, Marian and three other soldiers ran out of the basement and headed to an observation point in the contested area between Ukrainian and Russian positions, hiking up a hill and through thick forest. A Russian unit was recently hit there, and a stump of a Russian soldier’s foot was still standing amid the grass. A Ukrainian team was also ambushed in the same spot. A bloodied helmet and a tourniquet shredded by shrapnel were left behind.

Oleh, a member of the reconnaissance team of the Carpathian Sich battalion, scouts enemy lines near Izyum, Ukraine.

Wearing the top of a camouflage ghillie suit, Oleh, a reconnaissance team member who managed a Kyiv cemetery before the war, scanned nearby hills and the valley below, spotting a Russian infantry fighting vehicle and an artillery piece with binoculars. He noted their locations. Birds chirped. Bugs buzzed. Bright-green birch tree leaves glistened in the sun. It was quiet until the team started to move back through the forest, stepping over nettles, broken branches and pieces of twisted metal.

Then, it was spotted. With a whistle, artillery shells started flying overhead, landing in a field some 150 meters away. Some turned out to be duds and didn’t explode. The field, as other fields near the village, was pockmarked with dozens and dozens of craters from previous shelling, brown on emerald green. Troops dived, sprawling in the forest, then sprang up and kept moving between salvos.

“The Russians have unlimited ammunition, and so they fire anywhere they please,” Oleh said. “We only strike at confirmed targets, when we obtain precise coordinates, either by drones or through reconnaissance.”

The battalion suffered significant casualties when it was first deployed to the Izyum front, but the situation has improved in recent weeks.

Both Russian and Ukrainian reconnaissance units venture into this no man’s land between the two armies. Marian kept swinging his rifle to the left as he passed clearings in the forest. Earlier this month, Ukrainian forces here ambushed a Russian reconnaissance squad, killing all but one of its members on the spot, soldiers said. The survivor died of his wounds a few hours later, they said.

As the team returned to its base, Marian urged the men not to linger by the entrance. Seconds matter. The other day, one of the soldiers lost a leg when a shell landed just outside, Marian said. Several grotesquely twisted and perforated cars sat on the ground, tires long burned. Marian himself was injured last month when a piece of shrapnel from a tank shell hit his knee, he said. He has since returned to duty after a short spell in the hospital.

Inside the basement, Oleh and other soldiers examined the coordinates of the spotted Russian position on a tablet connected to the Ukrainian military’s battlespace management software, plotting the best way to hit it. Other teams prepared for reconnaissance patrols to other observation points, planning ambushes. Air-defense operators with portable missiles rotated in and out of positions.

Russian forces want to push past the Ukrainians south of Izyum, a key part of Moscow’s efforts to encircle Kyiv’s forces in the Donbas region.

The soldiers are equipped with Western and Ukrainian-made antitank weapons including Javelin and Stugna missiles. They can also call in long-range artillery and Bayraktar TB2 drones, soldiers said. Unlike in the early days, Russian aircraft—other than the Orlan reconnaissance drones that frequently buzz over the village—rarely fly above Ukrainian positions because several had been shot down in the area, the soldiers said.

“We are not a passive victim hiding in a burrow and just waiting for the enemy to come and get us. We carry out offensive operations and try to destroy the enemy, during the day and during the night,” said the outpost’s commander, Semen. “It’s a very complicated game. As we choose their vulnerable points and hit them, the intensity of their operations has decreased. They don’t have enough men, they don’t have the morale, and they keep losing the armor that they cannot replace. It’s hard for them. They are not idiots and they don’t want to die, either.”

Ukrainian forces are improvising as they fight Russian units that are usually larger and better armed.

Soldiers take shelter in the basement of a building near the front line in Izyum.

The stretch of the front line around Izyum is where Russia concentrated its forces after retreating from Kyiv and the rest of northern Ukraine in late March as President

Vladimir Putin

refocused the campaign on seizing the entirety of Donbas. The Russian thrust here was meant to cut key rail and road connections to Ukrainian-held parts of Donbas, and eventually surround and destroy some of Ukraine’s best troops.

The Carpathian Sich, a volunteer battalion that emerged after Russian proxies seized parts of Donbas in 2014, came together once again after Russia invaded on Feb. 24, joining the defense of the town of Irpin on the western outskirts of Kyiv. In early April, the unit was quickly moved from Kyiv to stand in the way of Russian troops rolling from Izyum. Most of the battalion’s members aren’t full-time soldiers.

Juris Jurass resigned his seat in the Latvian parliament to take up arms in Irpin in March.

The fighting on the Izyum front has been much tougher than in Irpin, in part because the Russians have improved their tactics, the Ukrainian soldiers say.

The battalion is named after the military force of short-lived Carpathian Ukraine, which proclaimed independence in the spring of 1939 in the Transcarpathian region that belonged to Czechoslovakia between the two world wars. Like many such battalions, it has welcomed foreign volunteers in a variety of roles. One of the more senior foreigners is Juris Jurass, who resigned his seat in the Latvian parliament to take up arms in Irpin in March. In addition to combat duties, he is organizing logistics—about half of the battalion’s vehicles were donated by supporters in Latvia.

The fighting on the Izyum front has been much tougher than in Irpin, both because the urban terrain near Kyiv favored defenders, and because the Russians have since improved their tactics, the soldiers say.

“They have learned and no longer drive in the big columns that can be hit in bulk. They are much more careful than they used to be, and now operate in small groups,” said Rusyn, the deputy battalion commander. The T-80 tanks on this front have sophisticated French optics and thermal-vision systems, unlike the T-72s that make up the backbone of the Russian tank forces, he said.

The battalion suffered significant casualties when it first deployed here, but the situation has improved in recent weeks, Mr. Jurass said.

“At first, it was pretty much tanks against assault rifles. It’s a big deal to overcome your fear when you understand the difference between your and your enemy’s capabilities, and still hold the line,” the Latvian fighter said, his words drowned by the bangs of explosions above the ground. “Now, it’s like day and night. Reinforcements are coming left and right. The Western weapons are doing their job. Morale rises once you realize your own strength.”

Russia is refocusing its offensive in Ukraine on the Donbas region, following setbacks in Kyiv and other northern cities, where it was thwarted in the air and on the ground. But military experts say the landscape of the east could be advantageous for Moscow. Photo Illustration: Laura Kammermann

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com

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