PAVLIVKA, Ukraine — A sheep dog, padding the streets on his own, was the only sign of life in this destroyed village. Flames licked the rafters of the school and smoke poured out of a burning house several streets away after Russian artillery strikes earlier in the day.
Amid the smoke and rubble, Pavlivka might seem like a dubious prize. But for the Ukrainian troops defending it last week, after recapturing it from Russian forces three weeks ago, it counted as a rare success when much of Ukraine, and the rest of the world, was transfixed by the fall of the last two cities in eastern Luhansk Province to overwhelming Russian firepower.
In this small corner of the adjacent Donetsk Province, a self-assured mechanized brigade was bucking the trend.
“I told you when I next saw you we would have liberated somewhere,” the unit’s commander said triumphantly. “Well, we have.” Like most serving officers in the Ukrainian army, the commander, a 30-year-old major who heads an anti-tank unit, asked to be identified only by his code name, Kryha, which means Ice.
Pavlivka, just a few miles from the nearest Russian positions, remains a precarious foothold for the Ukrainians. The Russians have bombarded the village so heavily since losing it that only a small group of Ukrainian soldiers were hunkered down at the entrance. The few civilians still living there were taking cover, nowhere to be seen.
Villages, towns and cities across eastern and southern Ukraine have suffered similar destruction as the Russian forces have made their slow, grinding advance over the last five months, pummeling Ukrainian troops with relentless artillery strikes and killing tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians.
Yet the retaking of Pavlivka was a welcome turnaround for Ukrainian troops in the region, after months of being on the back foot. It also gave them a close-up view of the enemy, and what they saw gave them confidence.