The fight for the Kharkiv region. Correspondence from Ukraine


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December 24, 2022

The fight for the Kharkiv region. Correspondence from Ukraine

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war
Photo: Felipe Dana

The Ukrainian army is taking back towns near Kharkiv. It may soon regain control over other sections of the border.

A burnt out Akatsiya self-propelled gun stands in the middle of the road near a destroyed house, right next to a shell crater. The torn hull, the remains of the turret with a long heavy barrel, broken caterpillar tread and a pile of casings litter the ground.

“This is the work of our boys,” boasts their General, Serhiy Melnyk, commander of the Kharkiv garrison, who has just visited the troops fighting at the front.

Nearby, in the trench, lay discarded 122 mm shells. It is here that some of the soldiers take shelter when shots, whistles and explosions reverberate in succession nearby.

At the moment, this area is a gray zone—the Russians were forced to leave it, and Ukrainian troops were just about to occupy positions there. The area is littered with bomb craters and many nearby buildings have been damaged. You can hardly meet inhabitants—most of them have evacuated to safer places. This is what most of the villages around Kharkiv that were occupied by Russia, and are now liberated, look like.

To the north and east of this city, the second largest in the country, Ukrainian soldiers now carry out subsequent successful operations. They quickly occupy nearby towns, thanks to which they distance danger from Kharkiv. The city, located 40 km from the Russian border, has ceased to be devastated by shelling, rockets and bombs. Some inhabitants have returned, and life is returning to the streets. In this section of the front, Russian soldiers occupy ever smaller scraps of land and are gradually being pushed across the border. After a failed attack, mainly on Kharkiv, the Russians are transferring their forces to the Luhansk region, where they are conducting a massive offensive.

Pardoned at the front

The Russian offensive on this border metropolis began immediately on February 24, when the Kremlin launched a full-scale invasion. On the same day, tanks appeared on the Kharkiv ring road, the city was shelled, and villages on the way were occupied by Russian troops. The front line lay to the north and east of this city of 1.5 million, and the suburbs became a line of defense—as well as a target of artillery strikes.

“My soul hurts. I love Kharkiv. It is one of the key cultural, industrial and economic centers, and what does the Russian world bring to it?” 36-year-old Oleh Shiryaev, commander of a company of the territorial defense, asks rhetorically.

Given his turbulent biography, this is quite an unexpected statement. After the war broke out in Donbas in 2014, Shiryaev fought in the vicinity of Mariupol and was associated with the Azov nationalists. However, in recent years he has come into conflict with Azov and moved closer to Illia Kyva—a politician with a bad reputation, supporter of Russia, until recently a deputy of the Supreme Council of Ukraine.

Shiryaev spent a lengthy period detained as a result—accused of attempting to take over a grain silo in the Kharkiv region by force, during which there was a shootout and six people were injured. After February 24, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced an initiative “not easy from a moral point of view” to release from detention all those who had significant combat experience in the war in Donbas, allowing them to make amends for their wrongdoing by defending the country. Shiryaev was among those released as a result.

Now he is fighting at the front and, along with his company, regaining territories occupied by the Russians. The day before I met him they, together with an airborne unit, destroyed a Russian armored personnel carrier.

“I am proud that we have people like the boys from my unit, whom I educate and with whom I go to fight, says Shiryaev. “Although of course I understand that the war will continue for some time, and along with joy there will also be sadness.”

The term “educate” seems spot on: Shirayev explains that many members of the territorial defense do not have military experience. Until recently, they were locksmiths, truckers and taxi drivers. It is these units that constitute—along with regular troops—an important strike force that is effectively pushing the Russian army from the vicinity of Kharkiv.

A revolution in reconnaissance

46-year-old Oleh, commander of a mobile artillery squadron, emphasizes that the responsibility for liberating territory rests on the shoulders of the infantry. “A position or a town is not taken until the foot of an infantryman steps foot there,” he says.

However, it is artillery, including his squadron, that enables the infantry offensive.

Oleh and several soldiers are currently conducting aerial reconnaissance using unmanned aerial vehicles that were developed for commercial activities. Equipped with controllers to which their phones or tablets are attached, soldiers send the buzzing machines out time after time. They focus on locating the opponent’s positions on their screens. Under other circumstances, you might think that they are playing a video game.

“Oh, I found a tank!” One of the soldiers exclaims. A formidable machine appears on the screen of the tablet. Oleh and the soldier determine the coordinates and communicate them to one of the mobile artillery platoons. After receiving the order, they shell the target that had just appeared on the screen.

By using drones, Ukrainian soldiers neutralize obstacles on various sections of the front. Oleh points out that unmanned aerial vehicles, which were produced for purposes other than military, have serious limitations. First of all, they a very short flight time of up to 30 minutes. For comparison: military drones can be in the air for more than a day. In addition, machines intended for civilian purposes are much easier to disrupt or even intercept, which the Russians are constantly trying to do. Finally, civilian drones are not designed to fly high in the air, so they can easily be struck from the ground.

Oleh, a soldier with considerable experience (at war since 2014), emphasizes that drones have revolutionized reconnaissance, thanks to which the effectiveness of artillery has significantly increased. “Due to the shape of the terrain and the long distances, we cannot conduct optical reconnaissance,” he says.

Despite this, the Ukrainian army has been developing the use of commercial drones for years, not only for reconnaissance, but also for combat purposes—grenades are attached to the machines, which are then dropped onto the target.

Nobody smiles anymore

As in the years 2014-15, the war with Russia after February 24 is characterized by numerous artillery duels. In this stage of the conflict, they occur with even greater intensity. The 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers under the command of Oleh hit targets at a distance of 15 km.

“We direct fire at the enemy, who is located in nearby towns. In this way, we provide support to the boys in our mechanized battalions,” explains Ołeh.

The howitzer platoons under his command have a lot to do. Vitaliy, the 37-year-old commander of one of the crews of a self-propelled howitzer, assures that they sometimes fire more than 150 shells a day. “They don’t always inform us about the result, but we usually hit [our target]. We destroy tanks, mortars and tankers,” says Vitaliy.

He first did service as a conscript, then signed a contract with the army. It was supposed to end in May this year, but Vitaly did not even think about whether or not to extend it. In the current situation, no one will let him come back to civilian life. He found himself in a self-propelled artillery crew from the very start.

On that Thursday, February 24, Vitaly was flummoxed. Chaos reigned on the first day of the invasion. They were sent to positions in the Kharkiv oblast, but had no orders to open fire on possible targets. A Russian column passed them on the way. Soldiers from the enemy army smiled and waved at Vitaliy, calmly continuing on their way along a designated path, as if they did not understand that they had ended up at war in a foreign country. Even today, Vitaliy wonders what he saw that day.

“Nobody smiles anymore. Only failure awaits them,” he is convinced.

Soon after that incident, Vitaly came under mass shelling for the first time. They still had no orders to shoot, meanwhile the sky was glowing as if night was ending prematurely and the earth was shaking so much that the almost 16-tonne Gvozdika seemed to weigh nothing. Vitaly and the rest of the crew waited for permission to open fire for half the night, convinced that something would strike them before that happened.

He doesn’t worry about orders anymore. The gunner takes aim, the loader places the shell in the breech, the commander orders to fire, there is a roar, the missile cuts through the air and flies somewhere far away, smoke rises and clumps of earth splash all around. And so on again and again until the crew has to change position so that they will not be caught by enemy fire. The enemy tries to locate the Ukrainian guns and reach them with its artillery. That is why the Gvozdiki remain in constant motion.

Corpses in the trenches

Some of the occupied towns, which in recent days were first shelled by the advancing Ukrainians and then the retreating Russians, have been destroyed. The ruins of buildings and roads dotted with wrecked military equipment catch the eye. The fields, in turn, are covered with trenches and detritus left behind by uninvited troops. This is what Mala Rohan, just outside Kharkiv, looks like. The village was liberated by the Ukrainian army in the last days of March, but many residents have still not returned home.

There are still bodies of Russian soldiers in the trenches, some of them covered with earth. Then only the sweet-smelling odor of decaying human flesh betrays their presence.

A Ukrainian soldier with a group of volunteers and gravediggers from a nearby cemetery have gotten to work removing them. One of the bodies must have belonged to a stout man and they struggle to pull it out of the trench. They tie a tow rope around the corpse and pull. Then they put it on the grass and place it in a sack. That day they found another four. Besides these, there were 63 more in a refrigerated trailer in Kharkiv. More than three-quarters of them are Russians, and the rest—I’m told—are Ukrainian citizens fighting on the side of the Kremlin (perhaps pro-Russian separatists, members of the so-called people’s militias from Donetsk and Luhansk).

“We found them all in liberated villages. The bodies were labeled, their DNA was taken and registered in a database. If anyone ever searches for them, they are ready to be shipped. We will exchange them for our living boys or for our fallen ones,” explains Anton Ivannikov, a captain in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, responsible for the collection of the bodies of Russian soldiers.

And life returns

So far, Ivannikov has only been active in a few towns. He does not have access to many, because military operations are taking place there. He learns about bodies either directly from servicemen who find them in military positions, or when the inhabitants of liberated areas report them to him. Most cannot be identified—they are too charred, sometimes they don’t have heads.

Meanwhile, a few hundred meters away, near the wreckage of a tank, electricians are already repairing the high-voltage line. Residents come to see what is left of their homes, and those who have not left are glad that peace reigns in the area again.

Life is returning to where the traces of war are still fresh.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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