Forced from Kharkiv, Russian troops regroup and dig in

PRUDYANKA, Ukraine — Ukrainian troops sat on a bench under the trees to joke around. One got on a bicycle and rode off down the empty road. This was the safest part of Prudyanka, a village north of the city of Kharkiv, their commander said with a joyous laugh.

Ukrainian soldiers are in good spirits in this region of northeastern Ukraine. They were part of a Ukrainian counterattack force that successfully pushed Russian troops back from Kharkiv two weeks ago, ending months of shelling the city, Ukraine’s second largest.

In the ensuing euphoria over dealing that setback to Russian forces, there was talk of Ukrainian troops marching toward the Russian border just 25 miles away. But that appears to have been premature, with some Russian troops north of Kharkiv holding out and digging in, making it much harder to push back.

While the Russians have withdrawn from the immediate outskirts of Kharkiv, they are still close enough to shell the city and heavy fighting continues within earshot of a ring of villages to the east that they recently abandoned, Ukrainian troops and villagers said. in interviews.

“We are afraid they will come back,” said Olha, 66, who was collecting freshly laid eggs in her village of Vilkhivka, east of Kharkiv, when the shelling echoed from across the hills. “God help us to prevent that from happening.”

In recent days, the two armies have exchanged artillery fire across the tree-lined hills to the north and east of the city. On Thursday, black smoke rose on the horizon over several locations in Russian-controlled territory.

Not surprisingly, Ukrainian forces remain confident that they will eventually defeat the Russians.

“They will lose their ability to fight the war,” said Vitaliy Chorny, a member of a volunteer brigade who works as a forward observer, piloting drones to identify targets for Ukrainian artillery units. “Our guys don’t feel tired and they are the complete opposite.” But the Ukrainians also say they are meeting stiff resistance from Russian units that have built up extensive defensive positions.

“There’s a whole underground city there,” an officer said, pointing further north. He only gave his code name, Tikhi, and his age, 31, according to military protocol. “They have trenches, bunkers, everything works underground. We tried once to take it. It was pretty scary.”

The city of Kharkiv is coming to life, with 2,000 people returning daily by train, cafes opening and public buses returning to service on Monday for the first time since February.

“We consider that we have succeeded and they lost, in fact,” said Oleh Synyehubov, governor of Kharkiv. He gave an interview on the street under the trees when his office in Kharkiv’s central square was destroyed by direct hits from two cruise missiles in March.

However, a tour of the towns to the north and east of the city revealed a more precarious situation.

As they retreated, the Russians abandoned dozens of their own dead, amid burned-out tanks and armor and shattered trenches along the rolling hills. Few people have returned to the battered areas. A dead Russian soldier still lay on the grounds of a burned school in Vilkhivka, his chest bare, his body swollen and blackened.

One villager, Nikolai, 62, was pushing a damaged cart which he said he had used to carry the body of a local person to the cemetery. Almost too distraught to speak, he began to cry. “No one thought it would be like this,” he said, wiping his eyes. “All the houses around me burned down.”

Russian forces, stalled around Kharkiv since the first weeks of the invasion, were reinforced with troops withdrawn from kyiv after the Russian advance was defeated, Chorny said.

“They were digging in,” he said of the Russians. “They were well prepared, serious soldiers. They had new tanks and good equipment, which is proof that they thought the area was strategically important.”

Ukrainian forces, also liberated from kyiv, massed in the region at the same time. Mr. Chorny was part of a group that harassed the Russians as they retreated from towns and villages east of kyiv before taking part in the counterattack in Kharkiv.

But as that advance progressed, and just after his unit suffered a painful setback on the battlefield, the Russians abandoned their positions.

Exactly why they withdrew became clear, he said, when he returned to survey the battlefield last week and was stunned by the extent of Ukrainian artillery destruction of Russian positions. “I can’t even believe how hard it was for them,” he said. “It was impossible for them to hold on.”

In response to urgent calls from kyiv, several European countries recently sent tanks and heavier weapons to Ukraine, while the US sent 90 long-range M777 howitzers already in action along the 300-strong front line. miles long in the east.

However, it is unclear what role Western shipments of long-range howitzers and other heavy weapons played in the Kharkiv counterattack.

Mr. Chorny said that he had not seen any of the new howitzers in use there, but that they had been used elsewhere in the region. Shells reportedly played a role in another disastrous episode for Russian forces on May 11, when hundreds of soldiers were killed trying to cross a river in Bilohorivka, in the eastern Lugansk region.

But in Kharkiv, as in Kyiv before it, the Ukrainian troops relied primarily on the agility of their forward observers and the responsiveness and effectiveness of their artillery units.

Much has been written about the Western-supplied shoulder-mounted anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainian forces, but the greatest damage done to the advancing Russian columns was the Ukrainian artillery, guided by Ukrainian special forces troops and observers using drones, analysts of the Royal United Services Institute in London in a recent report.

In both cities, Russian forces were hampered by poor logistics, faulty planning and open communication channels that alerted Ukrainians to their moves, analysts said. The Ukrainians, by contrast, had the advantage of the local population as their eyes and ears who called in sightings of Russian troops.

The Russian military has rarely had to face a country with such strong artillery, tank and rocket divisions, Chorny said. “They were beaten every day,” he said. “Every day we were killing them, with hundreds of high caliber artillery shells flying at them, and thanks to our help, those hits were very precise.”

Despite such successes, however, Ukrainian soldiers and officers still face the brunt of Russian firepower in the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, collectively known as Donbas.

Indeed, Chorny admitted, Ukrainian units are likely to lose ground further south and east in Donbas, where Russian forces are now concentrating their efforts.

And the fighting remains intense in the Kharkiv region. Mourners at two military funerals in Kharkiv on Thursday said the all-male battalion had suffered eight deaths and 40 injuries this week alone.

A 49-year-old businessman who enlisted at the start of the war and goes by the code name Odin, was nursing facial injuries from a mine explosion just north of Kharkiv in an area recently vacated by the Russians. One of his soldiers lost a leg in the blast, he said.

The first forces that arrived in Ukraine in February and March were mostly ill-prepared and inexperienced, Odin said. But the units now being deployed are better trained and more experienced, he added.

“It’s getting a lot harder,” he said. “They are digging in and now we are facing a competent army.”

Soldiers in the frontline village of Prudyanka had been unable to advance for three weeks, the officer named Tikhi said, because they lacked the necessary artillery support against the pit dug by Russian troops.

But he also mocked the enemy. “They are shooting from left to right and in front of us,” he said. “Sometimes we laugh because they shoot each other.”

As his radio crackled, he said there were ethnic conflicts between some of the Russian units, which included men from Dagestan in the Caucasus and Buryatis from Russia’s Far East, near the Chinese border.

“God is helping us,” he said. “They’re shooting at each other, you stupid bastards.”

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