PAVLIVKA, Ukraine — A sheepdog, 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.
“People needed to believe in themselves, see the enemy, see them captured, killed, see that they are also easily hit,” Senior Lt. Andriy Mikheichenko, deputy commander of an anti-tank missile unit, said. “Moreover, we have a lot of new recruits. These people also needed to feel success.”
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Ukraine’s 53rd Brigade seized the village on June 21, he said. Through the night they negotiated the surrender of 10 Russian prisoners, including the commanding officer stationed in the village.
Kryha, who led the operation, said his troops caught the Russians off guard both with the timing and the direction of the attack.
“This was a complete surprise for them,” he said. “We surrounded them so that they could not go forward or back. They were blocked. We also blocked reinforcements who could come to their aid.”
Sitting in an underground operations rooms at his base, its walls lined with maps and video feeds of the surrounding countryside, he said the Ukrainians had planned their assault for a month before making their move, to ensure minimal casualties. The preparation paid off and they secured the village in 48 hours, with only one soldier killed and three wounded, he said.
The enemy forces consisted of about 150 men, half of them Russian marines and the other half pro-Russian forces drawn from the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, but he said they had been complacent and not very smart.
On a visit to Pavlivka on Sunday, the commander walked through the wreckage of three Russian armored vehicles by the central square. One vehicle was reduced to a mangled jumble of metal, its turret blown off with such force that it lay 100 yards away down the street.
The central buildings were badly damaged and gutted by fire. “You see what this war is doing?” the major said.
Further along the street the Russians had used a residential compound as their headquarters. An abandoned S.U.V. marked with the Russian code sign Z stood in the courtyard amid the debris from the battle. It was here that the Russian commander was caught. “He came out and immediately raised his hands,” Kryha said.
There were brief street battles but the Russians put up little fight. “They realized that it no longer made sense,” the commander said. “They could not go on.”
The Ukrainians had not planned to get bogged down with taking prisoners, but in the end they took 10 of the Russians. The Russian commander requested to be allowed to retreat without weapons back to his side but the Ukrainians did not accept that, Kryha said.
His men showed less concern for the Ukrainians fighting alongside the Russians. Dozens of them were killed in the battle, he said, and the rest escaped.
The enemy captives were all members of a marine infantry brigade from the Russian naval base at Simferopol in Crimea, said Lieutenant Mikheichenko, who saw and talked to the prisoners.
“They were well-spoken, educated and well-equipped,” he said. “But they were all tired and lacked motivation.”
They had been fighting since February, he said, first in the city of Kherson, which Russian forces captured early in the war. Then the unit was thrown into the battle for the port city of Mariupol and fought a weekslong campaign against Ukrainian troops for control of the Azovstal steel plant. Then, without a break, the marines were sent to frontline positions at Pavlivka.
Among some of the possessions, uniforms and weapons captured by the Ukrainians was a diary belonging to one of the Russians killed in the battle. A sergeant from the city of Kemerovo in Siberia, he had written a loving farewell letter to his wife. “Maybe they felt something was coming,” Lieutenant Mikheichenko said.
The lieutenant provided photographs of some of the diary entries to The New York Times. The sergeant also wrote about an unsuccessful assault by the Russians on Mariupol and the fearful experience of coming under shell fire from Ukrainian forces. The next day he wrote: “They said there would be another assault. I don’t really want to go, but what to do?”
He also wrote about Russian soldiers looting. “Guys went to apartments and brought out big bags. Marauding in all its glory,” he wrote. “Some took only what they needed and some took everything, from an old television set to a big plasma TV, computers and expensive alcohol.”
Delivering a defeat to the Russians was of particular importance to the 53rd Brigade. At the beginning of the war in February, the brigade was defending the town of Volnovakha, which guards a strategic highway into Mariupol. But in mid-March they were forced to cede the town and retreat some 20 miles, even losing Pavlivka.
They fell back to the town of Vuhledar, a largely deserted conglomeration of battered high-rise apartment blocks where a few beleaguered residents hug the doorways and cook on wood fires in the courtyards. Without electricity or running water, they said they relied on the army for supplies and protection from thieves.
A retired miner named Volodymyr, 65, sat on a bench in the courtyard on the north side of a building, which residents have learned is better protected from Russian artillery. “I did not think to leave,” he said. “My wife is buried here and I will rest with her.”
Despite the destruction, Pavlivka had provided a needed boost, Kryha said. “We rolled back, rolled back, rolled back,” he said. “Then we stood up and stopped. We gained strength and resources. People have gained more experience. Now they realized that they really can fight.”
Kamila Hrabchuk contributed reporting from Kurakhove, Ukraine.