In some places the enemy has abandoned positions, guns and even roubles. Elsewhere, resistance is fiercer
Wed 14 Sep 2022
It’s a liberation – something Ukrainians have been awaiting for half a year now. According to President Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian army has taken more than 6,000 sq km from the Russian occupation – including a few towns in the Donbas, which took months for the Russian army to capture.
Any image appearing from a newly liberated town is watched with fascination. I was glued to a short video showing the Ukrainian army entering Balakliya – the first of the larger towns liberated in the Kharkiv region. The ladies in the town emerged from basements, hugging the military and suggesting they stay and eat. “Boys, we have some pancakes left,” they said. The soldiers begged off: “We can’t now, please, perhaps a bit later,” they replied, in the tone children usually reserve for their mothers. “We need to go on, and it’s dangerous here – you need to be evacuated.”
The speed and success so far have come as a shock, and it is extremely difficult for anyone to verify what is happening on the ground – the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces unofficially restricted access for any journalist to the frontline during this operation. I have been covering the war for months now, and at a conference in Kyiv over the past few days I had the opportunity to talk to Ukrainian army figures about the counteroffensive.
What we have heard so far is that the Ukrainian military has managed to not just move the frontline, but to break the line and make progress deep into the Russian military’s rear. Russian troops have abandoned their positions en masse, leaving their equipment, vehicles, shells and even money: in one of the towns, Ukrainian police reportedly found 20m Russian roubles(£290,000) left by the occupiers.
When a Russian general tried to pass the retreat off as a planned “regrouping”, even Russian propagandists ridiculed him.
I spoke to a senior military officer who was surprised and still a bit wary about the outcome. “Most probably it’s phenomenal bungling from the Russians. It still could possibly be an ambush. The more we observe, the more it looks like the bungling of the Russian forces.”
I also managed to catch Ukraine’s minister of defence, Oleksii Reznikov, who with a smile told me that there should be “more surprises”. However, he became more serious and stressed: “If Russian morale is low in the Kharkiv region, in the south the airborne troops are fighting, and they are highly motivated – and making life for the Ukrainian army really difficult.”
People are generally hopeful. For the last five months, the Russian army has waged an artillery war instead of engaging in direct battles. But within days of this new offensive, the Ukrainian army claims to have captured thousands of Russian soldiers as prisoners of war. This raises hopes that at least 8,000 Ukrainian military personnel being held in Russia might be released in exchange.
Make no mistake, though: it’s not an easy path. Ukrainian soldiers are fighting and dying. Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I learned about the death of a fellow soldier of two of my friends, killed in the Kharkiv region during the past few days, and read about members of the national opera joining the army.
I have found that the most excitement is expressed by international experts, diplomats and correspondents. Ukrainians are hopeful but wary. Every one of us has a friend, a relative or somebody we know fighting on the ground at the moment, somebody whom we are unable to contact, or who might be sent on assignment.
So what happens next? The general sense is that we should expect attacks on civilian infrastructure. Kremlin troops bombed towns they wanted to subdue, such as Severodonetsk and Mariupol, but have stayed away from destroying power stations in the rest of Ukraine.
Destruction of the power grids would be worst when the cold weather comes – November and December. On 11 September, the day after I spoke with Ukrainian officers, Russia fired missiles on power stations, leaving five regions without electricity: Kharkiv, Sumy, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro, and the Donbas. In Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, which suffered the most, two energy company workers were killed while trying to restore energy for millions.
For the moment, the focus should be on the liberated regions. When the Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy regions were freed in March, the task was to bring back normal life as soon as possible: to rebuild, restore energy, gas and water supplies, and restore connection to the internet. A week after the fighting around Kyiv, the cities of Bucha and Irpin were full of people returning home.
Now, the residents in the newly regained territories have been advised to evacuate – they were not allowed to do so by the Russians during the occupation. Too many houses have been destroyed; the newly liberated villages are the new frontline, and they are without gas, water and light – but also without Russians. Zelenskiy’s recent address turned this scene into a slogan for the latest stage of the war. Ukraine will happily live without gas and electricity, so long as the Russians are gone. “Without you” is the new motto.
In one of the villages, mobile connection is already working. So I called some people to ask what was happening. They didn’t talk about the horror of occupation, but the joy of liberation: “The Ukrainian soldiers who came were almost hurt, that’s how hard people hugged them; they almost crushed them in their arms.”
- Nataliya Gumenyuk is a Ukrainian journalist specialising in foreign affairs and conflict reporting, and author of Lost Island: Tales from the Occupied Crimea