Neskuchne, Ukraine CNN  — 

The four roads of Staromaiorske appear almost ground to dust in the drone footage. It’s a tiny village, but as the latest gain of Ukraine’s renewed counteroffensive in the direction of Mariupol, Staromaiorske’s symbolism far outweighs its size.

Its fate represents a larger problem for Ukraine as it pushes forward. After the bitter battles of Ukraine’s advances, barely a wall is left standing from which Kyiv’s forces can defend the recaptured ground, making their hard-earned progress vulnerable to Russia’s blunt artillery.

This is exactly what happened Monday, when persistent shelling was said to have pummelled the village’s ruins. At one point, Russian officials even claimed to have kicked Ukrainian forces back out of the village, which Ukraine staunchly denied.

For the troops who fought for Staromaiorske, a mixture of Ukraine’s AREY territorial defense forces from Krivyh Rih and the 35th Marines, the fight was the latest of many, where grueling losses have marred every 100 yards regained.

A solider from the AREY forces, call sign Krivbas, sped towards the front as he described the main peril of the ten-day Staromaiorske attack, at the end of which Russian forces suddenly fled the ruins.

“When you assault under enemy shelling, you have nowhere to hide,” Krivbas said of the ruined village. “That’s the hardest part.”

Images from drone footage show the extensive damage to Staromayorske, Ukraine.

He said the Russians have tried to recapture the village twice with small groups of troops since it fell last week.

Ukraine’s position is made harder still given Russian forces are on the eastern side of the river, able to use its natural boundary from which they can fire artillery. These latest advances remain small in scope, but came after Pentagon officials suggested Ukraine had stepped up a gear in its months-long counteroffensive and was finally committing reserves to the fight.

Hopes are high for a faster pace of advance, but have been dampened by the very real threat of Russian airpower and Ukrainian exhaustion, troops in frontline villages told CNN.

‘Welcome to Mordor’

Krivbas walked through the ruins of Neskuchne, a larger town liberated by Ukraine weeks earlier, as he described the tenacity and cunning of the Russian forces he fought there.

Ahead of the assault, Ukraine had assessed that only 20 Russians were defending the town. But there were another 200 hidden in various basements, who did not even emerge to use the toilet, apparently using plastic bottles underground to avoiding Ukrainian surveillance drones.

As a result, Ukraine thought its force of 70 was overwhelming, but instead met tougher resistance than expected.

The bitter fight for Neskuchne ended, Krivbas said, in the school hall, where Russian paratroopers made their last stand before fleeing. He gestures to the trash littering the school floor, and appalling conditions in which the occupiers appeared to live, before battle torched the building.

The wall graffiti is equally bleak: “There is no love.” “God is for Russia.” “Welcome to Mordor.”

It is a nihilism that only amplifies a key question Ukrainian forces have: Why do the Russian troops fight so hard for these tiny settlements? As they push further into occupied territory, the fight remains as hard.

The fact that Russian forces fight so persistently for each settlement has raised doubts about claims that Russia’s defensive line is fierce but thin.

“I hope that when we get through their last line of defense, then they start to run,” said Krivbas. “For now they still feel there is something behind them.”

The recent deployment of Ukraine’s reserves, and talk of a new phase of the counteroffensive can only boost morale so far.

“We feel support, but we are very very tired,” Krivbas said.

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‘I don’t understand their motivation’

The brutal tenacity of Russian tactics remain steadfast.

Amid constant outgoing shellfire, Serhey, an AREY commander, said: “Their tactics haven’t changed. They put the Storm Z convicts in front with no comms or information.”

Such prisoner assaults – waves of poorly equipped recruits from Russia’s jails who are often described as “cannon fodder” – are used to expose Ukrainian firing positions, so better trained Russian soldiers can engage them, he said.

He added: “They stand till the death. I don’t understand their motivation. Or what they are fighting for.”

His troops showed a small Russian booklet entitled, “Why we fight,” found in captured Russian positions, which provides a warped narrative of the invasion’s causes, saying Russia had been attacked and was left with no choice but to defend itself.

Another Staromayorske liberator, callsign “Reva,” carried a captured modern AK-12 Russian assault rifle as he described the apparent Russian use of an irritant gas on the frontlines.

“There was chaotic [Russian] shooting, to find out where we were. Then the gas. You don’t feel it. It moves slow near the ground. I was packing my rucksack when I felt burning in my throat and nose,” he recalled.

Even the mines the Russians laid were booby-trapped.

A young military deminer who goes by the call-sign Volt, described how anti-tank mines he found were laid with a grenade beneath them, so the grenade would detonate if the larger mine were moved, causing a dual blast. His explanation was interrupted by loud outgoing rocket fire.

Ukraine has picked up the pace, and is moving. Its troops just do not know how much further this bitter fight will continue.