Inside the Ukrainian city freed by daring special forces soldiers

‘It was impossible to describe how scary it was,’ a grandmother says, as Balakliya is liberated by a surprise offensive

IN BALAKLIYA and SENIOR FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT

13 September 2022 •

For six months, she lived in fear. First in a basement, where she and her three-month-old grandson sheltered for a month as Russian forces blasted their way into Balakliya early in the war; then, over summer, in their garden, trying to grow the food that had vanished from the shops.

“Rockets would fly constantly over our heads. The only thing we knew was that our guys would not shoot us. So it was calming to work in the garden,” said the grandmother, who declined to be named, her voice trembling between tears and laughter.

“And when our people freed us, the Russians started throwing rockets here and there and it was scary. Very scary. It was impossible to describe how scary it was.”

The mixture of euphoria, relief, and deep shock was typical of the residents of Balakliya liberated by a surprise Ukrainian offensive last week.

Last week’s Ukrainian offensive does not yet have a name, and the details of what happened are still shrouded in the fog of war.

It could be called the sixth battle of Kharkiv – following four in the Second World War and a fifth that unfolded around the regional capital between February and May.

Ukrainian soldiers stand on the road in the freed territory of the Kharkiv region
Ukrainian soldiers stand on the road in the freed territory of the Kharkiv region CREDIT: Kostiantyn Liberov/AP

Others have dubbed it the Battle of the Oskil river, after the waterway beyond which the Russians retreated, and which is likely to become the new front line. 

Ukraine has barred reporters from the front lines and for security reasons offered only a few details about the progress and planning of the operation.

The visit to Balakliya on Tuesday, organised by Ukrainian authorities, was the first major trip for foreign press into the liberated zone.

The Russians seized Balakliya, a town of 26,000 on the banks of the Siversky Donetsk river, in early March. As the front line stabilised along the river, they dug in extensive trench systems. They seemed to be here to stay.

Placeholder image for youtube video: HmNvnvZTWRU

But early last Wednesday, a small Ukrainian special forces battalion attacked heavily fortified Russian positions along the Siversky Donetsk river to the south of the town, a wounded Ukrainian officer told the Globe and Mail.

The assault turned out to be a diversion to draw Russian forces away from the northern edge of the town, which was then hit by the main attacking force.

Similar assaults occurred along a broad front extending north from the town. Fast moving spearheads streaked across the countryside into the Russian rear, and the outnumbered enemy crumpled.

Balakliya fell by Friday. On the weekend, the Ukrainians seized the crucial strategic junctions of Kupiansk and Izyum and the Russians announced a “regrouping” on the other side of the Oskil, effectively abandoning the Kharkiv region entirely.

A damaged Russian military vehicle is seen after Russian forces withdraw from Balakliya
A damaged Russian military vehicle is seen after Russian forces withdraw from Balakliya CREDIT: Anadolu Agency

“It went according to plan, but instead of it being an A grade it got an A plus,” Serhei Gaidai, the governor of the neighbouring Luhansk region, told The Telegraph. “The Russians themselves added the plus. They simply ran – it is nonsense to call it a regrouping.”

By the time The Telegraph entered Balakliya on Tuesday, the front had moved so far east that the fighting was no longer audible. 

Oleh Synyehubov, the governor of the Kharkiv region, told reporters in Balakliya that Ukraine would do everything it could to prevent Russia retaking the town but warned “we are at war. There is always a risk” of the enemy counter attacking.

He added that investigations into possible war crimes committed during the occupation had already begun.

“Unfortunately I cannot give you a precise number. We have found some places of the burials of civilians and we are going on with the process of excavation. So far we know of five people, but believe me this is not the final statistic,” he said.

Women cry after being liberated in Balakliya
Women cry after being liberated in Balakliya CREDIT: Anadolu Agency

The Telegraph saw some evidence of brutality and atrocities, reminiscent of Bucha and other towns outside Kyiv, though not at the same scale.

Forensic investigators inspected the decomposing bodies of two men who had been found in a ditch near a Russian checkpoint before they were bagged and removed to a morgue.

Serhii Bolvinov, the head of the investigations department of the National Police in the Kharkiv region, told The Telegraph that witnesses had found the bodies on Sept 7.

He said inquiries suggested they were both civilians who had been killed the previous day by Russian soldiers who opened fire as they attempted to drive past the checkpoint.

He also showed journalists a basement in the town’s police station that they said the Russians used as a torture chamber. Officials presented bloodstains and straps hanging from the ceiling as evidence. The Telegraph could not immediately verify the claim.

A damaged school in Balakliya
Investigations into possible war crimes committed during the Russian occupation have already begun CREDIT: Anadolu Agency

However, one local told The Telegraph that he had been subjected to torture by electrocution at the police station by Russian investigators who suspected him of links to the Ukrainian military.

“I was taken from the street because they searched my apartment and they found a picture of my brother and my brother is a soldier in the army so they decided I had something to do with the army too,” said Artem, who declined to give his surname.

He said his captors held him for 46 days without hurting him, but before he was released “decided to use torture against me with electricity”.

“They asked me who his brother was, what he was doing – I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t know anything. I’d been here for so long. So they turned on the power even more and more.”  He was eventually released after his captors decided he had no information.

‘Scoring a goal before half time’

The consequences of the battle here are still being debated. 

Hanna Malyar, a deputy Ukrainian defence minister, hailed a decisive Ukrainian victory and a Russian collapse.

“When they understood they were being defeated they announced they were changing the plan of their operation. As well as it was done in Kyiv when they were fleeing they were leaving whatever they could, from arms and vehicles to their underwear,” she said.

A Ukrainian soldier drives a tank through liberated Balakliya
A Ukrainian soldier drives a tank through liberated Balakliya CREDIT: Anadolu Agency

A Western official said the offensive was “impressive” and had left Russia without the capacity to mount offensive operations, but cautioned it was “not a turning point” that would quickly end the war.

“It is likely it was strictly speaking a withdrawal ordered by the general staff rather than an outright collapse,” the official said.

“It looks really dramatic, it is a vast area of land. But the Russians have made some good decisions in terms of shortening their lines to make them more defendable,” he said. “But it is exactly what the Ukrainians need. I would describe it as scoring a goal before half time.”

The Kremlin has brushed off the disaster, insisting that its “special military operation” will continue until it reaches its goals.

There are signs that Western leaders are nonetheless hoping the shock of defeat will persuade Vladimir Putin to back down.

Olof Scholz, the German chancellor, urged Mr Putin to agree a peace based on “complete withdrawal” of Russian forces in a phone call on Tuesday.

2 comments

  1. “He said his captors held him for 46 days without hurting him, but before he was released “decided to use torture against me with electricity”.

    Torture with electricity is terrifying and incredibly painful. Putinazi invaders who use this, or any other form of torture, beating or rape should face the death penalty. Likewise collaborators and of course all who murder civilians.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “It looks really dramatic, it is a vast area of land. But the Russians have made some good decisions in terms of shortening their lines to make them more defendable,” he said. “But it is exactly what the Ukrainians need. I would describe it as scoring a goal before half time.”

    Tasteless comment. The allies must work to ensure that full time is very much closer; metaphorically the final minutes.

    Liked by 3 people

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