The Ukrainian and Russian delegations were both in Turkey that Friday morning, hammering out the final details of an agreement to allow the export of Ukrainian grain from Odessa. The Russian blockade of the Ukrainian port, as well as the mining of the harbor by the Ukrainian forces to prevent the landing of Russian marines, was wreaking havoc with international food prices, as well as depriving Ukraine of income. A new harvest was coming in and a major artificial famine was potentially in the works if the Russians would not agree to a humanitarian corridor for Western ships to export the grain.
As the deal was being finalized (it would be announced that evening, and summarily broken, in spirit if not in law the next day when the Russians bombed the Odessa port), I was waiting on the cobblestone-paved street outside of Odessa’s Bristol neo-Baroque style hotel—now painted pink instead of red to the disgust of local purists. Major General Andrii Kovalchuk, commanding officer of the Ukrainian Southern Front had promised to take me along on his daily rounds visiting his officers’ command posts and bunkers along the front. We had been at the same dinner the night before, and the general was keen to show me what the so-called Russki Mir, or Russian world, actually looked like (spoiler alert: The formerly picaresque and vibrant villages have been now rendered thoroughly lifeless, with empty administration and school buildings shattered by Russian artillery shells). I was honored to be the first Western journalist to accompany the general throughout the Mykolaiv, Kryvi Rih, and Kherson regions.
Still shy of 50 years old, Kovalchuk was born in a village in the northwestern Volyn region of Ukraine, which is tucked in between the borders with Poland and Belarus. Of medium build, the general has a cleft chin, thick, even black eyebrows, a wide forehead, and a full head of neatly cropped white hair. A former chief of staff of the Ukrainian Air Assault Forces, he is part of a cadre of talented and flexible younger Ukrainian flag and command officers who came of age after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Some years ago, he was awarded the status of Hero of Ukraine for his gallant command after the start of the war with Russia in 2014. As we drove past lakes, estuaries, and rivers illuminated by the summer glare, he fondly recalled the many times that he had parachuted into each of them from the back of a plane.
The general is very thoughtful, courtly, and polite. Also, just like every other Eastern European general I have ever spent time with, his speech is direct, garrulous, profane, and occasionally very funny. After all, why bother becoming a major general otherwise? It should also be mentioned that Kovalchuk possesses a delightful and roguish smirk that lights up his face from ear to ear whenever he says or hears something mischievous.
Under Ukrainian wartime law, General Kovalchuk essentially has total power over Ukraine’s six southern regions. Around 100,000 men are under his direct command, if one counts the territorial defense battalions in those regions. He will also be leading the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive to retake the southern Ukrainian territories that the Russians wrested away in the first days of the war. Kovalchuk travels across the south several times a week in order to prepare for the coming operation.
As we stopped at various command posts and bases throughout the day, he received various reports. Zelensky and the Ukrainian high command announced the coming de-occupation of the Kherson region. The sunflower fields along the roads were only starting to ripen, with the bulbs of their still unopened crowns bent over in unison as if they were in the process of awakening from a deep slumber.
Kovalchuk was understandably very cagey about the timeline and strategies for the upcoming offensive to retake Kherson. Instead, we discussed our mutual experience of having had authority issues as rebellious young men. “I had discipline problems back in school, I kept talking back and they could not kick me out only because I was very good at test-taking,” Kovalchuk confided in me as we drove through an achingly gorgeous wheat field panorama between Odessa and Mykolaiv. “I had the same exact problem,” I riposted.
It is a good trait and it is probably not unconnected to your being a general now,” I told him. “And why you are in the car with me,” he responded with a laugh.
Spokesmen for the Ukrainian armed forces have underlined what has been obvious for some time to attentive viewers of Ukrainian war media channels: American-provided long-range tactical rocket systems have decimated Russian ammunition depots and infrastructure in the occupied territories. The Ukrainians claim that at least 50 Russian ammunition depots have been rocketed by precision strikes in the month since the Ukrainians have received the American long-range weaponry. Several days after our trip, the Ukrainians blasted the Antonivsky bridge in Kherson with a barrage of HIMARS rockets. The bridge was rendered essentially inoperable and the Russian soldiers who were located on the wrong side of the Dnipro river will now have serious logistical issues being resupplied. Or perhaps retreating.
As our two cars approached ever closer to the front lines, the wheat fields that we were driving by were more and more often either charred black, covered in grayish smoke, or glowing with low-intensity fires after having been hit by Russian artillery shells. Next to one field that we drove around, bales of freshly harvested wheat lay ripped apart next to the exploded carcass of an expensive American-made, mahogany-red tractor. A few feet away, I could see the fin of an unexploded Russian missile that had burrowed halfway into the earth. “They harvested the wheat but had no time to gather it or sell it,” Kovalchuk gestured at the scene while shaking his head with a mixture of pity and disgust.
At another crossing we watched Russian artillery pounding an empty field. Noticing my puzzlement, the general informed me that his tanks and artillery had been on that field the previous day, but he had since ordered them moved.
It is widely thought among serious military analysts that the Ukrainians likely need to start their southern counteroffensive sooner rather than later—the ground push likely needs to get underway before the end of August. The targeted destruction of occupied infrastructure by pinpoint missile strikes is therefore paving the way for what is likely to be a grueling campaign. The Russians have already ceased advancing in other sectors in order to rearm and reequip, and they have spent the course of the previous two months reinforcing the Kherson region with ever more tanks and artillery systems, as well as transferring additional weapons systems and men from the Donbas.
Unlike the Russians, the Ukrainian army has no manpower issues, Kovalchuk informed me. “We have half a million men already mobilized and we can mobilize another half million if that is necessary. What we need now to continue the operation is more heavy weaponry,” he explained. Without quite saying so forthrightly, he intimated that his forces did not have quite enough firepower to go on the counteroffensive quite yet. I cavalierly informed him that it might be better if he won the war before the American midterm elections coming up in November.
Along with the rest of the Ukrainian government and military, Kovalchuk called for the West to step up delivery of ever more artillery systems. “We have had no losses at all yet of any of the HIMARS systems,” he underlined proudly. “Which demonstrates how good we have quickly gotten at utilizing them. Even the Americans have been surprised at how effectively we have utilized the systems. Because every rocket hits its target. Every rocket destroys a bridge or an ammunition depot. Our allies have also seen tremendous cost-effectiveness in the manner in which we use the missiles,” he continued. “Every fired missile destroys many times its value in Russian equipment or ammunition.”
In response to my observation that the Russians—who have full spectrum superiority in artillery and ammunition supplies over Kyiv—have on many occasions used millions of dollars worth of smart missiles for little gain or against insignificant targets, Kovalchuk went on to compare the cost-effectiveness of the Ukrainian war effort to the overwhelming waste of the Russian campaign that he has observed in his theater of operations. In between the Russian equipment losses on Snake Island and the sunken Russian flagship Moskva, the Russians had squandered a billion dollars worth of technology in Odessan waters alone, he noted.
Kherson has seen the creation of a vibrant Ukrainian resistance and partisan movement of mass sabotage and propaganda, with artful posters threatening the occupiers plastered around the city late at night in defiance of Russia’s brutal occupation troops. The cars of collaborators are routinely bombed, and various Russian occupation officials have been assassinated. The region has also been infiltrated by Ukrainian army sleeper cells who are engaging in rearguard actions. Social media channels have been full of videos of hapless Russian recruits being held at gunpoint by Ukrainian men in balaclavas after being taken prisoner during patrols.
I asked General Kovalchuk whether Russian counterintelligence is succeeding in disrupting Ukrainian partisan networks in Kherson. “They sure are working in that direction,” he confirmed without going into the details. Some partisans, Ukrainian sleeper agents, and saboteurs have been smoked out and apprehended. The Ukrainian army has also publicly called on the civilian population of Kherson Oblast to temporarily evacuate the region in order to clear the way for the Ukrainian army to fight with less worry about collateral damage to civilians. Over the last weeks, one has begun to meet displaced persons from Kherson in the cafes and streets of Odessa.
Our last stop of the day was in a small village in the Kherson region where every building had been mangled or partially destroyed by ceaseless Russian artillery fire. The frontline was a mere 4 miles away and Russian and Ukrainian artillerymen exchanged fire across the demarcation line every few minutes. The general left me along with his bodyguards outside of the command post as he ducked in to receive his report. I waited for him to conclude his business under a reinforced concrete canopy while our jeep was being refueled, along with one of the general’s special forces bodyguards, whose name was Artem. He was a law student at a Ukrainian Interior Ministry academy and told me that he hoped to be a military police lawyer after Ukraine gets its military police going. He was very curious to hear my insights about the collapse of book reviewing in America in the wake of the radical restructuring of the newspaper business by the digital revolution.
Every time a Ukrainian artillery barrage was fired, the men in the dugout would cease their conversation so as to count the number of seconds between the launch, the explosion, and the inevitable barrage of counterfire from the other side. I was told to jump and sprawl into the dugout ditch in the corner if a Russian rocket was to strike the roof of our structure.
An hour and a half later, General Kovalchuk returned from the command post with a mixture of positive and dispiriting news. The previous night, Ukrainian forces had retaken yet another small village in the Kherson region (whose name must be withheld for security reasons). The Russian platoon occupying the village had been repulsed, but would likely regroup and try to retake it later that day.
“Did your guys take any casualties?” I inquired. “Yes,” Kovalchuk confirmed using the grim Soviet-Afghan war jargon for cargo to be evacuated from a war zone. “We had a two hundred (a lethal casualty), and a pair of three hundreds (wounded).”
We returned to the car and accelerated quickly so as not to offer too tempting a target to any Russian drones potentially loitering overhead. Commencing the long drive back to Odessa over the dirt road that we had arrived on, it was only a few minutes before we heard the burst of silenced gunfire as well as a quick succession of pinging sounds on the road directly behind us. From inside the jeep it sounded as if rocks were bouncing off of the bumper and wheels of the vehicle.
The shots had emanated from a strip of foliage along the road, where a foraging Russian recon team or a single sniper had observed our black jeep and correctly deduced that it was carrying a senior officer. We might never even have realized that we were being ambushed if we were not radioed about the attack by our bodyguard contingent in the car directly behind us. The shots had only missed the car by a second or so, they told us.
After driving several minutes to get safely out of range, General Kovalchuk leapt out of the car to personally inspect the car for damage. He was immediately flanked on all sides by his burly bodyguards in shield formation. For a moment the general gazed intensely in the direction from which the shots had rung out. Looking pensive, he moodily lit a cigarette and inspected the car for bullet holes.
“The canopy, foliage, and branches in that wooded area out of which they fired likely caught some of the other shots,” he explained to me thoughtfully. The sniper had missed, and so the general would live to fight another day.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.