They warn that northeastern Ukraine could define the next phase of the war with Russia

File photo: Ukrainian soldiers from the 3rd Separate Tank Brigade participate in a drill (AP/Vadim Ghirda) (Vadim Ghirda/)

A tank carrying Ukrainian infantrymen speeds towards a position marked on a map with a sheet of metal. The soldiers descend, throw grenades and fire machine gun bursts. Then they repeat the maneuver, faster and faster.

It’s just a drill, but with the sounds of real war rumbling just four miles away, this daily training underscores just how much is at stake in the northeastern front of the Ukrainian war, where military officials say a much-anticipated Russian offensive has already begunwith fighting that could define the next phase of the conflict.

Time is of the essence here, so speed and cohesion are the goal of exercises that combine reserve tanks and infantry assault units.

“Timing will be important to stop Russian offensives towards the Ukrainian defensive lines,” explains Col. Petro Skyba, 3rd Battalion Commander. Separate “Iron” Brigade of Tanks.

In recent weeks, artillery fighting has intensified in the vicinity of Kupiansk, a strategic city in the far eastern Kharkiv province, on the banks of the Oskil River, as Russian attacks intensify in a bid to capture the entire Ukrainian industrial heartland known as Donbaswhich includes the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.

For the Kremlin it would be an urgently needed victory now that the war has entered its second year.

Ukrainian soldiers from the 14th Separate Mechanized Brigade fire a rocket launcher (AP/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukrainian soldiers from the 14th Separate Mechanized Brigade fire a rocket launcher (AP/Vadim Ghirda) (Vadim Ghirda/)

A victory at Kupiansk could decide future lines of attack for both sides: if Russia manages to push Ukrainian forces west of the river, it would clear the way for a significant offensive further south, where the administrative borders of Lugansk and Donetsk meet. If the Ukrainian defenses hold, they could reveal Russian vulnerabilities and allow for a counteroffensive.

The news agency PA spoke about the fighting with generals, commanders and soldiers of three brigades from the Kupiansk area, as well as with civilians of the city affected by the fierce battles.

“The enemy is constantly increasing its efforts, but our troops are also increasing their efforts there, making timely replacements and maintaining the defense,” said Brigadier General Dmytro Krasylnykov, commander of the joint group of troops in the Kharkiv region.

In the towns and villages that remain on the paths of the fighting, constant Russian shelling has leveled homes, and some residences have been repeatedly hit by shells. Civilians wait for food in the cold and line up for milk rations and materials to cover broken windows.

“We have nothing to do with this war. So why do we pay the price?” asks Oleksandr Luzhan, whose mother’s home was attacked twice.

A woman walks past houses destroyed by a Russian attack in Kupiansk (AP/Vadim Ghirda)
A woman walks past houses destroyed by a Russian attack in Kupiansk (AP/Vadim Ghirda) (Vadim Ghirda/)

On the battlefield, Ukrainian soldiers brought a rocket launcher into a fighting position, aiming the weapon according to coordinates sent to them by their commanders. They wait for the final order.

Seconds turn into minutes. Snow falls silently in thick, wet clumps beside a withered field of sunflowers.

“Fire!” A salvo of rockets takes to the sky and then falls towards Russian targets, often tanks or armored personnel carriers. To escape any counterattack, the soldiers of the 14th. Brigade of the Ukrainian army collect everything and leave in a Soviet-era BM-21 “Grad”.

Along the northeast front, there are no quick victories, says Vitaly, the gunner in the operation, who gave only his first name according to Ukrainian military protocols. “It is war: someone goes back, someone advances. Every day there are changes of position”, he adds.

Russia stepped up its attacks in early February after deploying three major divisions to the area. Fighting is centered northeast of Kupiansk, where Kremlin troops have gone on the offensive with marginal territorial gains. So far Ukrainian fortifications have prevented major advances, according to senior Ukrainian military officials.

For Russia, the operation in Kupiansk would have two objectives: dislodging the Ukrainian forces from the settlements along the provincial borders would allow the capture of the Lugansk province. Pushing Ukrainian troops back to the west of the Oskil river and locking them in there would create a new defensive line and prevent deployments to the critical Svatove-Kreminna line further south, where a separate Russian offensive is underway to capture the Donetsk region by recapturing abandoned posts. in lyman. Svatove, which was occupied by Moscow last spring, is 60 kilometers southeast of Kupianske.

The ruins of a house hit by Russian rockets in Kupiansk, Ukraine, on February 20, 2023 (AP/Vadim Ghirda)
The ruins of a house attacked by Russian rockets in Kupiansk, Ukraine, on February 20, 2023 (AP / Vadim Ghirda) (Vadim Ghirda /)

Ukrainian forces are hoping to improve coordination between infantry and tank units in order to deprive Russia of the opportunity to breach the Ukrainian lines. Ukrainian troops continue to control settlements inside Lugansk, near the Kharkiv border.

Artillery and ammunition shortages are a real concern on this front, where the landscape is heavily forested, small villages are separated by vast farmland, and Ukrainian soldiers are under nine hours of shelling some days. Long-range weapons would contribute to faster victories in such an environment, Krasylnykov reckons.

Serhii, a 92nd Brigade infantryman who also only identified himself by his first name, admits that the ammunition shortage it was affecting his unit’s ability to advance and occupy enemy positions.

“They can fire 40 shots in our direction and we can shoot twice at the target,” he says. “They have quantity, but we are more efficient.”

He believes that the next few months will be critical. The Russians clearly “want to cut us off from the Oskil River. They want our troops to retreat … and they can occupy the entire territory along the river from Kupiansk to Kreminna, but we will not allow it, ”he assures.

Among the rubble of a destroyed house where a group of soldiers rested, there is a severed hand of a Ukrainian soldier. Russian reconnaissance drones detected the soldiers and an S-300 missile split the house in two on February 17.

Olena Klymko lives next door. The impact shattered her windows and damaged her roof.

Russian shelling launched against Kupiansk, a city with a pre-war population of 27,000, has become so frequent that “every time we go to sleep we pray to God to wake up in the morning,” he declares. Sometimes the attacks appear to have clear targets where the soldiers pass through. Other times, they are random.

File photo: Ukrainian soldiers drive a captured Russian tank (Reuters)
File photo: Ukrainian soldiers drive a captured Russian tank (Reuters) (CLODAGH KILCOYNE /)

The attacks are even more intense in the suburbs of Kupiansk, closer to the Russian lines, where access to supplies is also limited.

The residents of the Vovchansk border village they drive three hours to a makeshift bridge at the Pechenizhske Reservoir, which leads to Kharkiv. It’s the only way they can pick up supplies, residents say. They rarely leave their homes, fearful of intense shelling.

However, like many Ukrainians who live in similar danger zones along the 1,000 km front line, most are not willing to leave their homes forever.

In the town of Zelena, dozens of elderly people waited under a bus shelter, in the middle of a heavy snowfall, for the arrival of a food truck.

“Today is a quiet day, thank God,” says Victoria Bromska, as she took her cart with groceries back home.

Luzhan collects wooden boards and other items distributed by a Swiss aid group called Heks/Eper to seal holes in his mother’s house. About a quarter of those seeking shelter kits offered by the group in Kupiansk come for the second time. The kits help them increase the temperature in their affected homes.

The house hit in the February 17 attack belonged to an elderly woman whose children evacuated her to Kharkiv. It’s common for people to offer the Ukrainian military a place to rest, despite the risks, Klymko explains.

“How can we tell them no?” she asks. “They are there fighting for us.”

By Samya Kullab (AP)

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