‘Look, these are our boys’: Ukrainian soldiers drive Russian tanks to new frontline

Vehicles can be seen on and around a damaged bridge in Kupyansk.  (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
Vehicles can be seen on and around a damaged bridge in Kupyansk. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

Kupiansk, Ukraine – The front line is now a river, the Oskil, which runs through the middle of the eastern Ukrainian city of Kupiansk. On the one hand are Ukrainian forces that have almost completely driven their Russian enemies out of the northeastern Kharkiv region in a massive counteroffensive this month.

From her bedroom window, 26-year-old Liza Udovic, has a view to the other side, where the Russians have retreated. Over the past few days as Ukrainian forces moved into Kupiansk and the city became a battlefield, the sound of fires going out from Ukrainians shook his apartment. Russian tanks and armored vehicles still patrol the streets, but it’s Ukrainians driving them, using the Russians’ own discarded weapons against them.

Udovic began to count the seconds between hearing the deafening boom of the launched artillery and the presence of smoke in the distance. Only from Tuesday to Wednesday, the gap became longer, increasing from 9 seconds to 13.

“They are being pushed back,” she said with a smile.

On 9 September Oskil became a shield for the Russians. As the Ukrainians closed in, the invading forces crossed the bridge and blew it behind them to slow Kyiv’s advance. And Kupiyansk suddenly cut through its second half. The next morning, 55-year-old Lena Danilova was seen in confusion while driving Ukrainian vehicles on the streets of the city. A man next to him pulled up his sleeve, pointing to the different uniforms on the soldiers now patrolling the area.

“Look, these are our boys,” he whispered to her. Danilova said that she wiped away tears of joy.

“Finally,” she said. But then he got a sick feeling. Her two children were stuck on the other side of the river. He had gone there to study in a school a few days back. Now this is where the Russians are desperate to stop Ukraine’s hard-charging advance further south, into the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Kupinsk was occupied without fighting for only three days into the war, the city least surviving from Russian bombardment. Now the people here are facing some of the horrors of the war that other Ukrainians won months ago. They waited and hoped for Ukrainian liberation, many said, but they didn’t imagine it would be like this: threat of Russian shelling, no power in the city and no way to get basic medicines. Locals quickly packed their most essentials this week and emptied into crowds with volunteers, evoking images from the first days of the war.

Valya, 58, left her cats behind. Bowls of water with them stood on the floor of his apartment, and he left a key for his friend to feed them.

With only Russian state television channels, a Kremlin propaganda tool available in Kupiyansk for the past six months, people were cut off from free news about what was happening in Ukraine. The Russian government also prohibits the media from naming it a war, preferring to call it a “special military operation” and information is tightly controlled.

While out with her mother, Udovic was asked if she knew about the atrocities that Russian soldiers committed against civilians in Buka, including torture and killings – which were major international news in April. Udovic shook his head.

“Bucha?” Udovic said. “I think I’ve heard something about it, but I’m not sure.” Russian channels sometimes focused on how Europe was facing an energy crisis this winter with cuts to Russian natural gas flows, she said.

People spoke calmly about what happened during the occupation because they say a section of the population sympathizes with Moscow, and if Russian troops return, neighbors can inform neighbors. This shattered Udovic’s own family. Her grandmother stopped talking to her sister after hanging the Russian flag outside the house.

On February 27, just three days after Russia launched its unprovoked full-scale offensive, the mayor of Kupiansk, Gennady Matsegora, posted a video on Facebook acknowledging that he had handed over the city to the Russian military. Matsegora was a member of the pro-Russian party of Ukraine.

“At 7:30 this morning the commander of a Russian battalion called to propose talks,” he said. “If refused, the city would be stormed ‘with all consequences’. I decided to participate in negotiations to avoid casualties and destruction in the city.”

Udovic, who considers himself a Ukrainian patriot, acknowledged that Matsegora would almost certainly be considered a traitor. But his own feelings are complicated.

“For civilians, that decision probably saved lives,” she said. “We didn’t hear these explosions that we hear now. In the beginning it was quiet, but we knew that eventually, it would all start over.”

The Russians used Kupiansk as the seat of their occupation government. A propaganda radio station called “Kharkiv-Z” – the letter “Z” became a symbol of the Russian military through local shops. Residents could only call Russia. Even without a formal merger, the city became so integrated into Russia that Udovi even visited a relative from the Far East Russian city of Vladivostok, near the North Korean border. Established authorities in Moscow advertise that people can obtain Russian passports.

Danilov said that she was forced to send her children to school, although she knew that the Russian curriculum would be taught. People were threatened that their parental rights could be revoked if they did not do so. Others said they feared a strict 8 pm curfew because there were rumors that people would disappear if they were caught outside last time.

The Russians used Kupiansk as a transportation hub, moving hundreds of tanks and armored personnel vehicles through it and towards the front lines of the time. Some of the same vehicles are returned – trophies of the Ukrainian army using equipment that the Russians had left during their retreat.

On Thursday, as the sounds of fire going out through the city were heard, shells crashing on the free bank of the river could hardly be heard – a sign that Russian ammunition depots may be exhausted after the Ukraine attacks. And a quick comeback that forced them to leave or destroy a lot of it.

On the road to Kupiansk, Ukrainians were transporting pontoon bridges, preparing to cross the river and continue their advance. The sign announcing the city, in white, red and blue – the colors of the Russian flag – was torn down and turned into ruins.

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