The volleys of Ukrainian fire flying over his head at the Russians in their southern fortress of Kherson down the street gave Oleksandr Prikhodko reason for hope.
The energetic 42-year-old stood in the sooty ruins of the family shop he built on the outskirts of a country suddenly claimed by Russia.
The Russians crushed his life’s work in their second attempt to seize the nearby Ukrainian river port of Mykolaiv in July.
The Ukrainians have since launched a rousing counterattack that has turned the Mykolaiv-Kherson road into one of the central axes of the war.
Prikhodko grew up along this road in the one-factory village of Kotlyareve.
The Russians also blew up the factory.
“When you hear news of our successes, there is great psychological relief,” Prikhodko said between the sharp bangs of outgoing rocket fire.
“Even little things like watching a military car pull up ahead and then come back safely make you feel better,” he said.
“Our lives depend on our soldiers. And somehow they have to understand that we know that.”
– Methodic procedure –
Ukraine’s counteroffensive began in early September in the northern regions, which the seemingly stunned Russians eventually conceded without a fight.
Neither the site nor the villagers in Kotlyareve expect the same in Kherson.
The city and its eponymous region provide a gateway to the Kremlin-annexed Crimea and the economically important Sea of ??Azov.
His fall would leave Vladimir Putin almost bare of a campaign that has turned the Kremlin leader into a pariah and plunged Russia into Soviet-era isolation.
Ukraine’s struggle for Kherson began with a systematic attack of long-range missiles, which Washington agreed to deliver at the end of May.
The Ukrainians successfully targeted weapons silos and supply routes that Russia used to arm its troops in Kherson.
The idea was to limit the Russians to the weapons they had on hand and prevent them from getting more.
– ‘Like a roller coaster’ –
The sounds of war echoing around Kotlyarev indicate that Ukraine’s strategy is bearing fruit.
The Russians respond to the Ukrainian barrage with sporadic salvos of fire, barely noticed by villagers hardened by eight months of war.
“They’re shooting at us a lot less now,” said local works driver Viktor Romanov.
The 44-year-old and his wife Iryna made their weekly return home visit to feed their abandoned pets.
But they still prefer to wait out the war in Mykolaiv – both because it feels safer and because the city is more likely to have stable supplies of gas and electricity.
“We were hopeful beforehand and then watched bombs fall on our heads,” Iryna said.
“It’s like a roller coaster, the mood goes up and down,” she said of her confidence in Ukraine’s ability to fight back the Russians.
– ‘Completely truncated’ –
A fresh wave of strikes over the weekend at Russian Black Sea Fleet bases in Crimea appear to be part of Ukraine’s more assertive and muscular approach on its southern front.
Kherson native Oleksiy Vaselenko — a Russian-speaking speaker who fought Moscow’s proxy forces in eastern Ukraine during a minor conflict in 2014 — was concerned.
The 32-year-old worked in the same destroyed factory in Kotlyareve until its destruction, all the while keeping in touch with his relatives in Kherson.
He does so in absolute secrecy – and at immense risk to his loved ones, who live under martial law imposed by the Kremlin.
“Everyone I know there wants to go back to Ukraine. They are really suffering,” said the factory worker.
He said an apparent Ukrainian attack that crippled Russia’s new bridge to Crimea earlier this month also cut supplies to the Kremlin-controlled parts of Kherson.
“You feel completely cut off,” he said, shaking his head sadly.
“Somehow I think if Ukraine had had the kind of western support in 2014 that we have now, none of this would have happened.”