Ukrainians from Kharkiv villages describe Russia’s withdrawal

Even the messaging was not left to chance. Ahead of the first counter-offensive launched in the south on August 29, public communications were carefully crafted to lay the groundwork for Ukraine’s second military campaign in the east, which began last week.

Authorities have denied journalists access to the front lines and only certain images posted on social media by Ukrainian soldiers are allowed to be published.

The result: the impression that Ukraine is effortlessly pushing back Russian forces from the territory they have controlled for more than six months.

The truth, inevitably for a war zone, is much less clear cut.

CNN has been granted exclusive access to the city of Kupiansk, in the Kharkiv region, just a day after photos were published showing soldiers hoisting the Ukrainian flag on the roof of the city’s municipal building.

Far from being a city entirely under Ukrainian control, CNN found one that is still the subject of bitter fighting.

On the outskirts of town, Vasyl – who declined to give his last name for security reasons – tells us that for days “they (the Russians) were shelling and shelling” in the ongoing fighting in Kharkiv.

On Sunday afternoon, the thud of outgoing artillery fire was punctuated by the rarer boom of incoming fire. Russian forces were still fighting for Kupiansk, a city crucial to their supply lines, linking their military base across the northern border from Belgorod in Russia to the eastern region of Donetsk in Ukraine and the front lines of the Donbass.

Ukraine’s top military commander, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, claimed on Sunday that the country’s military had taken over more than 3,000 square kilometers (about 1,158 square miles) of territory since the start of the month, much of it believed to be in the Kharkov region.

But on the ground, Kupiansk’s fate seems far from certain, indicating that maintaining Ukrainian control over newly liberated territory in the region could prove difficult.

Further west, some villages have seen calm fully restored, such as Zaliznychne in the Kharkiv region, liberated last week as the eastern counter-offensive gathered pace. There, the fight seems to have been much less painful.

“I didn’t even expect it to be so fast,” said 66-year-old Oleksandr Verbytsky, who watched the Russians retreat. “I went to the store and when I came back everyone was running away. The Russians drove through the cemetery to get away. Can you imagine?”

Near Zaliznychne, Ukrainian investigators had arrived, alerted to possible evidence of a war crime. After the horrors uncovered north of Kyiv – such as Bucha – last April, when Russian troops withdrew after just a month of occupation, Ukrainian authorities know only too well what to look for.

Ukrainian soldiers hold a flag on a rooftop in Kupyansk, Ukraine, in this photo obtained from social media posted September 10, 2022.

War crimes investigators were among the group of officials who arrived at a dilapidated house to hear from Maria, who had to bury her neighbor and friend last February, just days after Russia crossed the Ukrainian border.

“I noticed that the door had been left ajar for days,” says Maria Grygorova. “And when I checked whether they were alive or possibly injured, I saw that they were cold and then I noticed two holes on Konstantin’s forehead.”

Residents of Zaliznychne describe the occupation as “terrifying” and although a sense of normalcy has returned, fear of the return of Russian troops still hangs in the air. Serhii Bolvinov, head of the Kharkiv region police investigation department, said they were recording apparent war crimes “in almost every village”.

“You never knew what the Russians were thinking, says Verbytsky. “I made sure never to speak to them because I knew they could hit me so when they walked past me I just turned away.”

Comments are closed.