Ukrainian marines have advanced for the second time in two weeks on the southeastern frontlines, towards the key port city of Mariupol, with the recapture of the village of Urozhaine appearing to have been partially aided by the Ukrainian use of controversial cluster munitions.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar confirmed the village’s liberation Wednesday morning, as a CNN crew approached its outskirts with the 35th Marines. Heavy artillery fire prevented entry into the village, as Russian forces shelled Ukrainian troops holding the area.
Drone footage of the intense fight for the village has emerged in which dozens of Russian troops can be seen fleeing to the village’s south. They are apparently shelled as they flee, at times by what seem to be cluster munitions, two arms experts who reviewed videos of the incidents said. The experts did not want to be identified discussing a sensitive issue.
Dykyi, the callsign of an assault company commander, said of the Russian rout: “Very many died, especially when they started to run.”
The videos show dozens of Russian troops running along an open road, seemingly forced to use the asphalt as the adjacent fields and treelines had been mined. Dykyi said. The Russians also gathered in large numbers in houses which were then hit by artillery.
“Lots of them died there,” Dykyi said, adding that mortars and tanks were used in the rout. He would not comment on the use of cluster munitions.
The drone videos also showed a Ukrainian tank charging alone at Russian positions, firing, and dragging behind it a cable on which were attached mine-clearing explosives. The charges detonate when the tank turns away from the clashes, ensuring the clear advance of the next units through minefields that have caused significant losses.
‘That side is using whatever they want’
The supply of cluster munitions to the Ukrainian military was preceded by great ethical debate inside the Biden administration, US officials have said. While brutally effective against infantry on open ground, the weapons scatter small droplet explosives that often fail to detonate and can be a residual hazard to civilians for decades to come.
More than 100 countries have banned the use of cluster weapons via treaty, though the Ukraine, Russia and the United States are not signatories to that international treaty.
The US military says the models they are supplying Ukraine have an improved “dud” rate in which only 2.5% of them fail to detonate on dispersal – a claim that is viewed skeptically by critics. By comparison, Russian cluster weapons, also said to be in use during their invasion of Ukraine, are claimed by Western officials to have a dud rate of 30%.
The Ukrainian military has confirmed the US weapons are in use on the frontlines, but declined to offer details. CNN was unable to confirm the devices identified by experts as likely cluster munitions in the videos from Urozhaine were US-supplied weapons. Ukraine is thought to have produced several similar devices domestically that could be in use on the frontlines.
Yet the ethical issues surrounding the weapons left assault commanders like Dykyi, whose unit has experienced heavy losses in the assault south, perplexed. “I don’t understand it”, he said. “That side is using whatever they want. Our people are dying from all of this and it is OK. But when the other side die, it is not?”
The recapture of Urozhaine, a small village, represents progress for a grueling counteroffensive in which the gains have been measured in meters rather than miles. Ukrainian troops have faced stiffer than expected resistance and have been slowed by heavily fortified Russian defensive lines, reinforced by vast networks of trenches and tens of thousands of square miles of landmines.
Earlier this week, Kyiv rejected recent criticism that its troops were not advancing fast enough, saying it was focused on destroying Russia’s capabilities and disrupting its logistics.
On the frontlines, the 35th Marines have experienced losses in their push south that have left Dykyi hostile to the “armchair” assessments of the counteroffensive’s slow progress from some Western officials and analysts.
Dykyi said the offensive’s critics “can always come to me as a guest and fight with me. Someone believes that you can fly over the minefield on a broom like in Harry Potter. It doesn’t happen like that in a real fight.”
“If you don’t understand that, you can sit in your armchair and eat your popcorn.”