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ZAPORIZKA REGION, Ukraine — The day after the struggle started, after their unit used to be just about burnt up in a missile strike, Ukrainian Sgt. Oleksandr Gorvat introduced his female friend and commanding officer, First Lt. Olena Petyak, a hoop he had twisted in combination from cord and requested for her hand in marriage.

“Formally we’re now not intended to serve in combination, however we aren’t formally married,” he defined on Friday, amid the whoosh of Grad rockets being fired at close by Russian positions. “This is for after the struggle. Once we win.”

Along side their unit, the 128th Separate Mountain Attack Brigade, the couple, each 25, have been dug right into a frontline place within the Zaporizka area of south-central Ukraine, east of the Dnipro River and best about two miles from the place Russian forces have been making an attempt to overrun extra territory.

Fierce combating used to be underway on Friday throughout a band of southeastern Ukraine, in and round primary cities like Polohy, Orikhiv and Vasylivka, which is at the banks of the Dnipro. It fell to the troops of the 128th to forestall Russian forces from pushing farther north towards the necessary business town of Zaporizhzhia, simply 20 miles north of Vasylivka at the river.

The Kremlin has accomplished considered one of its strategic objectives, seizing a strip of land alongside the Azov Sea, linking the Donbas area within the east, now the focal point of the struggle, with Crimea, the peninsula President Vladimir V. Putin invaded and annexed in 2014. The one vital pocket of resistance final is a sprawling metal mill advanced within the ruined port town of Mariupol, the place Ukrainian warring parties and civilians are in underground bunkers, beneath heavy bombardment.

However the Russians have been making an attempt this week to make bigger that ribbon of territory, pushing north from the coast towards Zaporizhzhia. Different Russian forces have been pushing west thru Donbas, the place on Friday one of the vital heaviest battle used to be being waged across the town of Sievierodonetsk and the city of Popasna. Moscow’s military used to be additionally advancing southward from town of Izium. Altogether, the entrance line is set 300 miles lengthy.

Moscow’s separatist proxies in Donbas, subsidized by means of Russian apparatus and troops, have held a part of the area since 2014, and Russia has stated that it objectives to make bigger its territory there. How some distance Mr. Putin will pass is unclear, however the Kremlin seems intent on trapping a lot of the Ukrainian army in a pincer and destroying it.

Lieutenant Petyak, who’s 2nd in charge of the brigade, stated the objective within the Zaporizhzhia area — the southwestern a part of that entrance line — used to be now not simply to carry the Russians at a standstill however to push them again.

“The enemy is repeatedly firing with artillery, tanks, Grads, and aviation in our path,” she stated. “They need to knock out this segment, however they received’t be capable of do it as a result of we’re right here. To the contrary they will must surrender their positions as a result of I’m positive that someday quickly we can push ahead and take the rest of the land that they’ve been in a position to quickly occupy.”

That can turn out a problem, even for the Ukrainian forces, that have shocked army analysts {and professional} infantrymen with their fierce and efficient protection because the get started of the struggle.

After Mr. Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces based totally within the Crimean Peninsula, one of the vital nation’s maximum professional and well-equipped, lunged north, gobbling up territory in southern Ukraine each within the path of Kherson, west of the Dnipro, and east towards Mariupol.

Early within the morning of Feb. 24, the warriors of the 128th brigade realized the struggle had begun when a Russian cruise missile hit their base, simply lacking the barracks the place they slept. The troops have been in a position to flee into the close by woods.

It used to be the following day, as they scrambled to regroup and sign up for the battle in opposition to the invading Russians that Sergeant Gorvat proposed.

In the beginning the brigade used to be deployed within the neighborhood of Melitopol, a southern town about halfway between Crimea and Zaporizhzhia. However they have got been driven again just about 70 miles to the north. They’re now entrenched in a patch of woods wedged between wheat fields which might be vibrant inexperienced with spring expansion.

Ukrainians who are living within the coastal territory that Russia has seized proceed to surge north in the hunt for shelter in Ukrainian-held lands. Convoys of vehicles and buses, weighted down with suitcases, arrive steadily on the automobile parking space of a household items retailer in Zaporizhzhia. Many arrive with unsettling stories of the Russian career.

“It’s general lawlessness,” stated Natalya Gorbova, who arrived in Zaporizhzhia on Thursday together with her 17-year outdated son, Egor. That they had fled Melitopol, whose mayor used to be abducted by means of Russian forces and dragged from his workplace with a bag over his head. He used to be best launched after Ukraine agreed to a prisoner switch.

“For those who keep house, it’s wonderful,” Ms. Gorbova stated, “however there are those guys strolling round with weapons who do no matter they would like.”

In Ukrainian territory, she stated, “it’s more straightforward to respire.”

Ukraine’s entrance line positions buzz with surveillance drones that Russian forces use to focus on their artillery. At one level on Friday, Capt. Vitaliy Nevinsky, the commander of the 128th, dispersed a gaggle of infantrymen chatting shut in combination round a campfire, lest a drone direct an artillery strike into the center in their collecting.

The primary weeks of the struggle have been a baptism by means of hearth for the 128th. At one level, Captain Nevinsky defined, his forces have been surrounded and needed to punch their approach in the course of the Russian strains. Captain Nevinsky, 25, stated he used to be using on a tank, masking the unit’s get away when it used to be hit by means of a shell. He suffered shrapnel wounds and a concussion, however returned to the entrance strains two weeks later.

His brigade is healthier geared up now, he stated, with antitank missiles supplied by means of the American citizens and the British, in addition to Stinger antiaircraft missiles and different complicated guns methods. Those have helped sluggish the Russian forces down, he stated. This week, he stated, the brigade has taken out two Russian T-72 tanks that strayed too with regards to their positions.

“We’re on our personal land,” he stated. “We’re protecting ourselves and knocking out this horde, this invasion of our territory.”

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