The Ukrainian soldiers thought the Russians would quickly retreat from Neskuchne, a tiny village in southern Ukraine, especially after a concerted artillery barrage and a rocket strike on their headquarters.
Instead, the Russians dug in, fighting for two days before giving up the village last month, leaving their dead decaying on the roadside and piles of expended ammunition around their makeshift defenses.
The Russian defeat, on June 9, was Ukraine’s first win in a prolonged counteroffensive that is well into its fourth week but moving at a slower pace than expected. In that respect, the battle for Neskuchne served as an early warning that Kyiv’s and the Western allies’ hopes for a quick victory were unrealistic and that every mile of their drive into Russian-occupied territory would be grueling and contested.
The dayslong battle was fought largely by a contingent of volunteer fighters who attacked on foot, not by the large, NATO-trained brigades equipped with Western tanks and armored troop transports that military analysts thought would lead the long-awaited advance.
Soldiers who described the fighting, along with visual evidence of the battle still scattered around Neskuchne two weeks after it ended, made clear that Ukraine’s success had hinged on ingenuity that helped catch the Russian forces off guard.
In the days after Neskuchne’s “liberation,” which was announced on June 10, Ukrainian forces have managed to retake several villages farther south. But since that early string of victories, Ukraine’s offensive has been slow. Ukrainian forces have been mired by staunch Russian defenses, mounting casualties and field after field of land mines.
The battle for Neskuchne pitted about 70 Ukrainian troops from the 129th Territorial Defense Brigade against roughly 150 Russian soldiers from the 60th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, as well as a contingent of Russian inmates-turned-soldiers known as the Storm Z unit.
“We had to liberate house after house,” said Valeriy, a soldier from the 129th brigade, who took part in the fighting and, like others in this article, is being identified only by his first name for safety reasons. “At the beginning of the counteroffensive, we thought there were no more than 20 of them.”
Neskuchne, a village of some 500 people, had been occupied by the Russians since the early months of the war, leaving ample time for Moscow’s forces there to dig in. The terrain around the village — a gradual rise to the west and the Mokri Yaly River to the east — meant that Neskuchne acted as a gateway to a string of villages to the south. In short: There was only one way in, and one way out.
The Russians knew this, and they expected that a Ukrainian advance into the village would be supported by tanks and other heavy equipment down its main, north-south road. Ukrainian soldiers who took part in the battle said that the Russian defenses had consisted of anti-tank mines and stockpiles of anti-tank missiles, some of which still remained in the Russian headquarters that was seen by The New York Times.
But the attack, at least in its early stages, did not incorporate “combined arms,” or the NATO military strategy of coordinating artillery fire with troop and tank movements that is often cited by Western military analysts and U.S. officials as critical to Ukraine’s counteroffensive success.
Instead of using tanks, which could easily be seen from the air or heard on the ground, the Ukrainians entered the village quietly, on foot and in small groups of infantry, after a World War I-style artillery bombardment.
Unlike the mass saturation of artillery fire common in that war, however, Ukraine’s strike on Neskuchne also incorporated a guided rocket attack. The rockets, fired by U.S.-supplied HIMARS, hit the Russian headquarters — a command post in the village’s northeast corner that had once been a school — and damaged the building but failed to destroy it.
Most of Neskuchne’s roughly 200 homes and shops are single-story structures that are common in rural Ukraine, which meant the two-story school was strategically important for any kind of defense. Much of the battle for the village centered on routing the Russians from the school, Neskuchnenska, which had closed down after the invasion.
Russian soldiers from the 60th brigade had prepared the building for any kind of attack, boring passageways between the classrooms so soldiers could move around without exposing themselves to gunfire — a tactic that Islamic State fighters employed during the 2017 battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul. The defenders also set up their barracks in the basement and carved holes in the walls for machine guns.
One machine gun nest, constructed in a stairwell with sandbags and a small firing slit, pointed toward the north-south road that provided the only access to the village. The position was littered with hundreds of shell casings, a clear indicator that the school remained occupied and defended following the HIMARS strike.
“After the headquarters was hit by HIMARS rockets, they continued to defend themselves,” said Dmytro, a soldier with the 129th brigade who also took part in the battle. Only after using more artillery “did we manage finally to drive them out of the school,” he said.
After the initial artillery barrage, which was focused on destroying land mines placed around the village’s outskirts as well as the Russian defenders within, dozens of Ukrainian soldiers fanned out from Neskuchne’s northwestern corner, navigating overgrown yards and smoldering debris. Then they attacked.
The Ukrainians communicated through walkie-talkies as they advanced, while staying in contact with drone pilots flying small, off-the-shelf devices. The drones proved essential as the battle dragged on: The Ukrainian troops relied on the drone pilots and those monitoring the battle over a video stream to communicate — using Starlink satellite internet — with the artillery battery supporting the attack.
On the second day of fighting, the 129th brigade was reinforced with an additional 20 soldiers from a nearby tank brigade as it struggled to dislodge the Russians.
The battle all but ended on June 9, when the Russian forces retreated under the threat of being surrounded. More than a dozen Russian soldiers were killed and wounded, and the Ukrainian soldiers said that some had drowned while trying to flee across the Mokri Yaly River. At least six Ukrainian soldiers died in the fighting.
“The Russians did not leave their positions until the last minute,” Dmytro said. The Russians left a stockpile of ammunition, machine guns, rifles and artillery shells. The war booty has since been divided up among the Ukrainian units that took part in the battle.
Now, the front line is roughly five miles from Neskuchne. The distant thud of artillery is a near-constant soundtrack, mixed with the bark of outgoing rounds from firing positions around the village.
Almost every house in Neskuchne is either damaged or destroyed, and the last person who lived there was evacuated after the battle. Unfed cats roam the streets. The school is a burnt, damaged shell of a building. The small bits of evidence that it was once a place of learning include tattered book pages on the floor, a charred Ping-Pong paddle and a half-deflated soccer ball tossed among the grenades, gas masks and discarded bandages for sucking chest wounds.