JThe first mortar shells are fired, aiming at Russian forces over a ridge. But those who follow arrive, move towards the Ukrainian positions, and land near the troops in their base.
The exchanges take place in Ruska Lozova, a village set in a landscape of woods, valleys, streams and fields, which was officially liberated late last month by Ukrainian troops, driving out Russian forces that had besieged the neighboring city of Kharkiv.
It’s just six miles north of the city, and the presence of Russian forces here, with tanks, artillery and air support, is an illustration of the fragmented front line here in the northeast of Ukraine.
Kharkiv’s highway is riddled with holes caused by artillery and airstrikes, and strewn with spent cartridges and casings. The grass borders on both sides are mined, so drivers should ensure they do not stray from the center of the road.
The motive for Russia’s determination to maintain a presence in this area is to try to ensure that its supply lines remain open to Izium, a town that is in dispute in an attempt to isolate Ukrainian troops in Donbass. – the new focus of the Kremlin for its military action after the failure of Russian forces to capture cities such as kyiv and Kharkiv.
“It was pretty close…they’re not that far away,” Commander Vsevolod Kozhemyako says, as another mortar shell lands near the destroyed industrial premises that have become his unit’s base.
“We have had regular bombings here. The Russians are well entrenched; they desperately want to stop us breaking through – if we break through, their routes to Izium are in jeopardy. So it becomes quite a tough and long fight.
The Khartia Volunteer Battalion, alongside a detachment of the Ukrainian National Guard, recaptured the village in April. But the Russians remain here in force. Three Ukrainian soldiers were killed last week and a number were injured. The Russians suffered dozens of casualties, say the Ukrainians.
The base was used by the Russians before the area changed hands. “It was absolutely dirty. You really had to clean it up and secure it properly. And then the challenge was to make sure they didn’t pick it up,” says Commander Kozhemyako. showed how badly they wanted to hunt us…how much they valued this place.”
The fighting spread to nearby areas, resulting in massive destruction, including of an internationally renowned plant gene research center in the village of Pytomnik, which contained 160,000 varieties of plant seeds. He was reportedly hit by a Russian missile. Ukrainian officials called what happened “deliberate environmental vandalism”.
The Russians held the heights above the Ruska Lozova base, providing effective vantage points for artillery barrages. Attacks also continued to come from tanks and the air, both from drones and helicopter gunships. The Ukrainians placed anti-aircraft artillery in the village; the battalion base at Khartia holds a supply of anti-tank missiles, including British supplied N-LAWs.
Advanced weapons were deployed around the village by the Russians. Ukrainian forces said they captured a T-90M, Russia’s main battle tank type, alongside other armored vehicles last week. The sorties are carried out by Mi-28 “Havoc” combat ships and Orlan-10 drones. Electronic warfare equipment is also used: the Ukrainian forces rightly fear that their communications will be compromised.
However, the troops of the separatist “Lugansk People’s Republic” are not as well armed, say the Ukrainians. Some turned out to be using Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifles that were first developed in the last century and wore body armor that offered little protection.
“They are not boys, but men, and well experienced if they have been fighting for eight years,” Kozhemyako explains. “Some had good guns, but others were actually using old Mosin rifles, believe it or not. Many of them said they had been trained in their army to come and fight; who knows if they were telling the truth.
“The Russians are pushing these soldiers forward – they don’t seem to care about casualties. They rely on strength in numbers. These guys are sacrificed, they get killed. They are meat for the grinder.
More mortar shells land nearby, then a faint missile hiss fades into the fields behind before landing somewhere with a distant thud.
Such attacks were incessant in the first days after taking office. “They were trying to find a distance, and the shelling would come very close, come back, then come close again. It was very worrying,” Kozhemyako says.
Khartia is one of the volunteer battalions that have proven themselves on the front lines of this conflict. Although they obtain arms from the government, most of their activities are self-financed.
Kozhemyako, a businessman before the war, lives abroad with his family. Two days after the start of the war, he gave up a skiing holiday to return to his native country.
“I was arriving in Ukraine as thousands of people were leaving. Old people, women with children, foreign students who were here, forced to flee – it was such a sad sight,” he says. “I just hope my city Kharkiv doesn’t fall before I can get there.”
He and others in the business community had become convinced during the separatist conflict that full-scale war would come to Ukraine sooner rather than later, and they began training citizen volunteers. This is one of the reasons, they say, for the combat effectiveness of the Ukrainians.
Commander Kozhemyak stresses that he will continue to participate in the conflict until “it is over”. In his mind, that means until all “occupied territories,” including Crimea and the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, are recaptured. “If we don’t finish this now, the Russians will start a new war in a few years. Do our Western friends realize this? They were warning us about this invasion, and I wish we would take it more seriously,” he says.
The unit’s soldiers seem equally adamant that operations must continue until all of Ukraine, as they see it, is liberated. Gary, a former aviation technology student, says: “I felt from 2014 [the start of the separatist war] that Russia would one day invade Ukraine. It is now done and we have succeeded in fighting them on many fronts. We must continue now; it will be a big mistake to quit.
“Doc” – a combat medic, as his call sign indicates – adds: “It was a war that was forced upon us. We defend our country. No one wants to see suffering, but we are now releasing people who have been under occupation, so things will start to improve.
Soldiers provided medical care to residents injured during the fighting, taking the most seriously injured to hospitals in Kharkiv.
Ukrainian forces evacuated most of the residents after the village was recaptured. Many houses had been looted and some young men had been captured by the Russians and taken away.
“They seemed to have looted even the humblest homes, taking whatever they could carry. Some men were taken away…we don’t know what happened to them,” says Oleg Supareka, deputy commander of the Kraken regiment, which led the villagers out. “These people have been under occupation since the beginning. They were in poor condition.
“The Russians started shelling while we were evacuating. They knew the civilians would be in danger, but as we saw in other places, it was not something they cared about. Two of our vehicles were hit, but luckily there were no serious injuries.
While Ruska Lozova seems almost devoid of people when we arrive, a few hesitantly emerge to talk to us.
“We lost count of the time here, days and weeks…we didn’t know if we would stay alive after all the fighting was over,” says Olena, who decided to stay when most of her neighbors were gone or were gone. evacuated.
“We stayed indoors as much as possible. The Russians searched some houses and interrogated a few men, but we are old people – they left us alone.
The 61-year-old woman and her 67-year-old husband Oleg rarely strayed far from their farm outside the village. “There was shooting and shelling all the time, day and night. It was very difficult to sleep.
“We still find pieces of rockets in the fields, and now we are very careful of the mines. My husband had lived in Russia; I have cousins there. We never thought we would end up like this, fighting,” she said, shaking her head.
“It’s not safe – there’s still fighting going on. We haven’t seen the Russians recently, but they’re still there. We hear bombs. We know they tried to enter Kharkiv from here. I don’t know if they will come back and try again; we feel very nervous.
Further down the road to Kharkiv, two burnt out and shot down trucks bear witness to Russian attempts to enter the city. They have been turned into checkpoint barriers by the Ukrainians.
“We were here when it happened; it was shortly after the start of the war”, says a policeman. “The Russians were using civilian trucks. They were disguised as civilians. They tried to crash through that blockpost [meaning checkpoint] and we had to open fire. They fought back; we killed some. The others fled. »
A second officer continues: “These are big trucks, so we thought we might as well keep them here at the blockpost.
“We are from here and we can spot strangers. We caught quite a few spies and saboteurs – they were very active. A man pretended to be blind as he signaled with his torch. In fact, we just arrested some suspicious people. We check them now.
Indeed, half a dozen men are lined up against the wall, their hands in plastic handcuffs, with yellow tape over their eyes. They claim to bring food to the stranded villagers. Half of them are released after checking their papers; the others are kept in detention.
“We have to be very careful – the Russians are still there,” said one of the policemen. “We can only relax after they’ve been expelled from our country, and it’s going to take a long time.”