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

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Vehicles are seen on and around a damaged bridge in Kupiansk.  (Heidi Levine for the Washington Post)
Vehicles are 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 center of the city of Kupiansk in eastern Ukraine. On one side are the charging Ukrainian forces who pushed their Russian enemies almost entirely out of the northeast Kharkiv region in a full-scale counteroffensive this month.

From her bedroom window, Liza Udovik, 26, has a view of the other side, where the Russians have retreated. The sound of outgoing Ukrainian gunfire rocked his apartment in recent days, when the Ukrainian army moved into Kupiansk and the town became a battlefield. Russian tanks and armored vehicles still patrol the streets, but it is the Ukrainians who drive them, using the abandoned Russian weapons against them.

Udovik began counting the seconds between hearing the deafening roar of hurled artillery and the appearance of smoke in the distance. From Tuesday to Wednesday only, the gap has lengthened, going from 9 seconds to 13.

“They’re pushed back,” she said with a smile.

The Oskil became a shield for the Russians on September 9. As the Ukrainians closed in, the invading forces crossed the bridge and blew it up behind them to slow Kyiv’s advance. And Kupiansk was suddenly cut from his second half. The next morning, Lena Danilova, 55, stared in confusion at Ukrainian vehicles driving through the city streets. A man next to her tugged at her sleeve, pointing to the different uniforms of the soldiers now patrolling the area.

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

“Finally,” she said. But then she had a sick realization. Two of her children were stuck on the other side of the river. They had gone to school a few days before. This is now the line where the Russians are desperately trying to stop Ukraine’s brutal advance further south into the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

After Kupiansk was captured without a fight just three days into the war, the city was at least spared from Russian bombardment. Today, people here face some of the horrors of war that other Ukrainians experienced months ago. Many said they were waiting and hoping for Ukraine’s liberation, but they didn’t imagine it would be like this: the threat of Russian bombing, no electricity in the city and no way to get medicine from base. Residents quickly packed up their most essential belongings and evacuated hastily with volunteers this week, conjuring up images of the early days of the war.

Valya, 58, left behind her cats. Bowls of water lined the floor of her apartment and she left a key for her friend to feed them.

With only Russian state TV channels, a Kremlin propaganda tool, available in Kupyansk for six months, people have been cut off from independent information about what is happening in Ukraine. The Russian government even prohibits the media from calling it a war, preferring to call it a “special military operation”, and information is tightly controlled.

While evacuating with her mother, Udovik was asked if she was aware of the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers against civilians in Bucha, including torture and killings – which had been major international news in April . Udovik shook his head.

“Bucha? Udovik said. “I think I’ve heard of it, but I’m not sure.” The Russian channels she sometimes watched focused instead on how Europe might face an energy crisis this winter with reduced flows of Russian natural gas, she said.

People spoke quietly about what happened during the occupation because they say that part of the population is sympathetic to Moscow, and if the Russian soldiers come back, then the neighbors could inform about the neighbors . Udovik’s own family was torn apart. Her grandmother stopped talking to her sister after she hung a Russian flag outside her house.

On February 27, just three days after Russia launched its full-scale, unprovoked invasion, Kupiansk Mayor Gennady Matsegora posted a video on Facebook admitting he had surrendered the city to the Russian military. Matsegora was a member of the pro-Russian Party of Ukraine.

“Today at 7:30 a.m. the commander of a Russian battalion called to offer negotiations,” he said. “In case of refusal, the city would be stormed “with all the consequences”. I decided to participate in the talks to avoid casualties and destruction in the city.

Udovik, who considers herself a Ukrainian patriot, acknowledged that Matsegora will almost certainly be seen as a traitor. But his own feelings are complicated.

“For citizens, of course, this decision probably saved lives,” she said. “We didn’t hear those explosions that we hear now. At first it was quiet, but we knew that eventually it would all start.

The Russians used Kupyansk as the seat of their occupation government. A propaganda radio station, called “Kharkiv-Z” – the letter “Z” has become a symbol of the Russian military – sounds in local shops. Residents could only make calls to Russia. Even without formal annexation, the city became so integrated into Russia that Udovik even had a relative visit from Vladivostok, the Russian city in the Far East near the North Korean border. Authorities based in Moscow announced that people could receive Russian passports.

Danilova said she was forced to send her children to school, even though she knew the Russian curriculum would be taught. People were threatened that if they didn’t, their parental rights might be revoked. Others said they feared the strict 8 p.m. curfew because there were rumors of people going missing if caught outside the past time.

The Russians had used Kupyansk as a transport hub, moving hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers there to what was then the front line. Some of those same vehicles are back – trophies from the Ukrainian army using the equipment the Russians left behind when they retreated.

On Thursday, as the sounds of outgoing fire echoed through the city, shells crashing down the liberated side of the river could barely be heard – a sign that the Russians’ ammunition depots could be depleted after the Ukrainian strikes and a rapid withdrawal which forced them to abandon or destroy much of it.

On the road to Kupyansk, the Ukrainians carried pontoon bridges, preparing to cross the river and continue their advance. The sign announcing the city, painted in white, red and blue – the colors of the Russian flag – has been demolished and in ruins.

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