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Inside a Ukrainian town's bloody battle to keep Russian invaders away from a nuclear plant and the vital port of Odesa

Ukrainians repel Russia in battle for Voznesensk
Ukrainians repel Russia in battle for Voznesensk 03:00

Odesa — The U.S. military says at least 7,000 Russian troops have been killed since Vladimir Putin ordered his military to invade Ukraine more than three weeks ago. Putin's government, however, tells the Russian people that only a few hundred of the country's soldiers have died.

CBS News correspondent Chris Livesay visited the key southern town of Voznesensk, where Ukraine's defenders recently managed to repel an attack by a much better-equipped Russian force.

It's another example of Ukrainian forces mounting a remarkable resistance — and it left grim evidence of a very different story to the one Russia's president is telling his people.

Russia ramps up attacks on Kyiv and Lviv 09:21

In Putin's disinformation war, his own soldiers are among the victims. The Ukrainian army keeps 12 of their bodies in a refrigerated railcar in Voznesensk. The town is offering to return the bodies to their mothers. Most were too young to have wives.

But the Russian military won't even acknowledge they exist, a Ukrainian military scout, codenamed "Ghost," told CBS News.

"Russia is treating their own soldiers like meat, leaving them to rot," he told Livesay. 

Ukrainian troops in Voznesensk came up against a Russian invasion force that was armed to the teeth. They had heavy artillery and helicopters. In a heroic act of self-sacrifice, they blew up the main bridge into the town to keep Russian tanks from crossing.

Civilian deaths rise from brutal Russian siege in Ukraine 04:02

If the Russian forces get past the bridge, there would be nothing to stop them attacking and seizing another of Ukraine's nuclear power facilities — and beyond that, the real prize for Putin: the major port city of Odesa. If Russia captures Odesa, it will gain a strategic foothold across a swathe of southeastern Ukraine linking its own territory with the Crimean Peninsula, which Putin seized control of with his last invasion in 2014.

In their march to gain that foothold, Russian troops apparently thought they'd hit a little resistance when they got to the other side of the bridge into Voznesensk. But they underestimated, or were misinformed about their opponents.

"They were advancing with tanks, mortars, lots of armor, and artillery, firing chaotically into the city center, striking a kindergarten and near an orphanage," Voznesensk's Mayor Yevheni Velichko told Livesay.

"CBS Evening News" anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell traveled to the Ukraine-Poland border as Russia's invasion of Ukraine triggered the fastest refugee displacement crisis in Europe since World War II. O'Donnell shares firsthand accounts from Ukrainian refugees and looks at how NATO is preparing while Russia pushes the war in Ukraine close to Poland's border in the 30-minute documentary "Norah O'Donnell Reports: Crisis in Ukraine," premiering Friday, March 18, at 7:30 p.m. ET on the CBS News app.

The mayor guided CBS News through the rubble and around the anti-tank mines still littering his town.

"This is where we stopped them," said Velichko.

His sleepy country town, without heavy weapons of its own, routed a Russian battalion.

Even locals like 66-year-old Sushenko Nikolay Semenovich, a retired minesweeper in the Soviet army, pitched in to repel the Russian force.

"I jumped out and shot with my own rifle," he told CBS News. "Our commander told me, 'get back in the basement, grandpa!' But my heart simply couldn't handle just sitting in the basement. These Russians don't give up. We will kill them all."

Sushenko Nikolay Semenovich, 66, a retired minesweeper in the Soviet army, pitched in to help repel Russian forces as they approached his town of Voznesensk, in the Mykolaiv region of southeast Ukraine. CBS News

That tenacity kept the invading force from advancing to Odesa on the ground, but it has not kept them away from the vital port by sea.  

U.S. officials say there are no signs of an imminent amphibious attack, but Russian warships off the coast have been firing missiles into nearby towns.

Volunteers in Odesa are bracing for a fight of their own, filling sandbags as Russian warships are spotted on the horizon.

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