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Ukraine's army faces a big test in the war: trying to retake the city of Kherson

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ukraine's army is facing one of the biggest tests of the war. Can it retake the strategic southern city of Kherson, which Russia occupied in the early days of the invasion? NPR's Brian Mann traveled to a command post near the front line, north of Kherson, where he met one of the battalion commanders leading the counteroffensive.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: After a long drive over old Soviet-era roads, I find the 98th Infantry Battalion headquarters in a half-abandoned town called Apostolove. It's in a battered building surrounded by an iron fence.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Tea or coffee?

MANN: What's that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Tea or coffee?

MANN: No, I'm good, thank you.

After a short wait, the battalion commander, Serhiy Shatalov, comes out - a stocky man with a couple days' growth beard and close-cropped black hair. He says we should talk outside in the overgrown garden, and I ask how far away the Russians are.

SERHIY SHATALOV: From here, like, around 11 kilometers.

MANN: Seven miles. It's a hot summer day, and we sit on a bench in the shade.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOURNING DOVES CALLING)

MANN: Mourning doves call from the trees while we talk. Shatalov tells me the Russians used to be much closer, threatening the outskirts of this town, but his men have been steadily pushing them back toward Kherson.

SHATALOV: So we are advanced already.

MANN: How far would you say you've pushed forward?

SHATALOV: Eleven kilometers.

MANN: Eleven?

SHATALOV: Yeah.

MANN: The fighting is brutal, with Ukraine and Russia exchanging artillery fire. Troops and tanks clash in a maze of farm fields and rivers, villages and old industrial sites.

SHATALOV: This is war. You cannot predict nothing - absolutely nothing.

MANN: Our conversation is interrupted as Russian tanks open fire in the distance. Shatalov grins and shrugs. It's normal, he says. Tank fire, air raid sirens - nobody even notices anymore. The city of Kherson was one of Moscow's earliest, easiest victories in this war. It's an important transport hub and bridge crossing on the Dnipro River near the Black Sea. Ukraine desperately wants to take it back. Ukrainian officials say they've now pushed close enough. Their own long-range artillery supplied by the U.S. and other Western countries is able to threaten key Russian supply routes. Shatalov tells me this progress has often been hard won against well-trained Russian troops.

SHATALOV: Sometimes we encounter it with real strong guy, like, an airborne guy.

MANN: But other times, he says, Russian units appear disorganized with low morale, even frightened. I ask about the spirit of his own men, some of them fighting five months straight.

SHATALOV: When we lost some guys, everybody, including me, felt not very well. But after that, like, we all realize this war, you know, and then let's make - that made my guys anger and to provide a good revenge for them.

MANN: It's war, he says, and his men want revenge. The U.S. and other Western countries are counting on officers like Serhiy Shatalov to give Ukraine an important edge in this war. Ukraine is often outmanned and outgunned in this fight. Shatalov's advantage is he was trained by the U.S. Army. He just spent time in a course in Virginia. He says under the U.S. style of command, the 600 men he leads are much more nimble and proactive than the Russians, who still operate on the old Soviet model of central control.

SHATALOV: Because a commander like me, I can provide my decision. I can decide what my guy's supposed to doing right now, not waiting for a special order.

MANN: But Shatalov says retaking Kherson will be costly and will only get harder in the days and weeks ahead. One complication - he says, Ukraine's army is pushing deeper into places where many civilians are ethnic Russians whose loyalty is uncertain. Shatalov compares the environment here to the U.S. fight in Vietnam. It's hard, he says, to know friend from enemy.

SHATALOV: Mostly pro-Russians.

MANN: Really?

SHATALOV: Really.

MANN: Do you have to be - and your men - do you have to be extra careful?

SHATALOV: Of course, yes. Do not talk with anybody. Nobody knows who I am.

MANN: The goal of retaking Kherson - do you have any sense for how long that's going to take?

SHATALOV: I do not know, to be honest. I do not know. I was thinking, like, firstly, like, OK, it's probably going to be very fast, but now it's like, you know, absolutely unpredictable, so.

MANN: How old are you?

SHATALOV: Twenty-nine.

MANN: Serhiy Shatalov is only 29 years old. He looks weary as we talk and says what he's doing here, leading the 98th Infantry Battalion, is often a heavy weight.

SHATALOV: It's very hard for me, to be honest, very hard to make that decision. But it's something higher, this commitment for Ukrainian people, you know? I can be killed also. I have no insurance, and nobody has.

MANN: Retaking a city like Kherson would give Ukraine's army its biggest victory since it broke the siege of Kyiv. It would be a major embarrassment for Moscow and Vladimir Putin. Victory is far from certain. The British Defense Ministry released an intelligence report saying Ukraine's offensive is fierce enough that Russia's generals will have to shift troops from other key areas if they hope to hold Kherson.

Brian Mann, NPR News, Apostolove, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.