Shevchenkove, Ukraine – On the side of a dirt road near Shevchenkove, southern Ukraine, 22-year-old Ukrainian soldier Roman lines up a Grad rocket launcher.
Seconds later, the nearly 60-year-old, Soviet-built weapon fires off a rocket at positions near the city of Kherson, occupied by Russian forces since the start of the invasion of Ukraine in late February.
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The Ukrainian army has been gearing up for a new assault to retake the urban centre, but on Wednesday officials told Al Jazeera their counteroffensive had slowed in recent days, partly because Russian troops were heavily dug into fortified positions.
“The fortified positions that the enemy has established are concrete and they have a minimum of three lines of defence,” a Ukrainian army commander who identified himself as Mykola said.
“We are in high spirits, but we are lacking in equipment to move forward. So we are accumulating the hardware from our international partners [and] then we will advance because we are trying to protect our soldiers and they are prepared for us,” he added.
“The Russian army should not be underestimated.”
Officials from more than 50 Western countries met in Brussels last week to pledge more weapons for Ukraine, especially air defence systems.
Kherson’s strategic importance
Kherson is one of four partially-occupied Ukrainian provinces Russia claims to have annexed – and arguably the most strategically important.
It includes both the only land route to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, and the mouth of the Dnieper River, a vital economic artery that bisects Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces in recent weeks have burst through Russia’s front lines in the region – their biggest advance in southern Ukraine since Russian forces invaded the country on February 24.
They have destroyed two bridges across the river and moved rapidly on its western bank, aiming to cut off Russian supply lines and potential routes of retreat.
Vladimir Saldo, the Kremlin-installed head of the Kherson region, on Wednesday admitted that the situation was “very difficult” and that the authorities had decided to evacuate civilians because of the risk of attack by the Ukrainian military.
Ukrainian officials dubbed the evacuation a “propaganda show”.
As the Ukrainian counteroffensive gathered pace, Russia unleashed a barrage of air attacks far from the front lines on October 10, rocking cities across Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv.
Since then, Russia has pounded Ukrainian cities and energy infrastructure with missiles and “kamikaze” drones, killing several people and leaving several towns without power.
The intensification of Russia’s attacks came in retaliation for an explosion that partially damaged the bridge linking Russia to Crimea earlier this month.
Oleksander, a businessman and resident of Shevchenkove, said he wants the war in his country to end but he also did not wish Russia ill.
“The Russians expect me to hate them for this. But I fight these feelings. I don’t want to feel hate,” he said.
“I have no desire for their homes to be destroyed. But I want all who came here and occupied my country to be killed.”