In Kharkiv, Ukrainian-liberated town rejoices as Russia retreats

On September 27, Ukrainian military vehicles drove on a main road in Kharkiv Oblast.  11. The fast-moving Ukrainian counteroffensive pushed Russian troops into a stunning retreat from key strategic areas in the northeastern region of Kharkiv.
On September 27, Ukrainian military vehicles drove on a main road in Kharkiv Oblast. 11. The fast-moving Ukrainian counteroffensive pushed Russian troops into a stunning retreat from key strategic areas in the northeastern region of Kharkiv. (Heidi Levine)

ZALIZNICH, Ukraine — Ultimately, the Russians fled by any means possible on Friday, riding stolen bikes and disguising themselves as locals. Hundreds of Russian soldiers stationed in the village disappeared hours after Ukrainian soldiers poured into the area, many leaving after their troops abandoned them, leaving stunned residents facing the rubble of 28 weeks of occupation.

“They just dropped their rifles on the ground,” Olena Matvienko said Sunday, still disoriented in a village full of ammo boxes and lit vehicles, including one loaded on a flatbed Russian tanks on board. The first investigators in Kharkiv have just begun collecting the bodies of civilians shot by the Russians, some of which have been exposed for months.

“I can’t believe we’ve gone through something like this in the 21st century,” Matviyenko said, tearing up.

The hasty escape of Russians from their villages was part of a startling new reality that shook the world over the weekend: February’s invaders were fleeing parts of Ukraine they occupied early in the conflict.

The Russian Defense Ministry’s daily briefing on Sunday showed a map showing Russian troops retreating behind the Oskir River on the outskirts of the Kharkiv region – a day after the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that its forces had been ordered under a decision Leave the Baraklia and Izyum areas in the Kharkiv region. “Reorganization”.

On Sunday, Ukrainian commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny said Ukrainian forces had recaptured more than 3,000 square kilometers (1,158 miles) of territory, a claim that could not be independently verified, adding that they were heading east, South and North advance.

“Ukrainian forces have in some places penetrated deep into Russian defenses to a depth of up to 70 kilometers,” the Institute for War Institute, which closely tracks the conflict, reported. A campaign assessment released on Sunday said the territory they had occupied in the past five days was “more than Russian troops have since More territories have been occupied in all operations since April”.

The apparent collapse of Russian troops sent shockwaves through Moscow. Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen republic, who has sent his own fighter jets to Ukraine, said that if the Russian aggression does not change immediately, “he will have to contact the country’s leaders and explain to them the real situation. On the ground .”

Evidence of Ukraine’s victory continued to emerge on Sunday, with images of Ukrainian soldiers raising a flag in central Izyum being abandoned by Russian troops, as well as from Jindrashivka, Chkalovsk and Velikikomishuwaha. Similar images for other towns and villages.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declined to elaborate on his army’s next move, saying only in an interview with CNN: “We will not stand still. We will move forward slowly and gradually.”

In a strong statement to Russia on Sunday night, Zelensky insisted the invaders would be deported. “Read my lips,” he said. “No gas or no you? No you. No light or no you? No you. No water or no you? No you. No food or no you? No you. Cold, hunger, darkness, and thirst are not for us Not as scary and deadly as your “friendship and brotherhood.”

Ukrainians poured into newly liberated villages in southeastern Kharkiv, hailing the end of their ordeal and wondering if it was really over. “Only God knows if they will come back,” said Tamara Kozinska, 75, whose husband was killed by a mortar shell shortly after the Russians arrived.

Military experts have warned that this is not over by any means. Russia, which still owns about a fifth of Ukraine’s territory, continued its heavy shelling of several areas over the weekend. Nothing can guarantee that Ukraine will be able to keep the reoccupied territories safe. “The counter-offensive liberates the territory, after which you have to control it and be ready to defend it,” Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov warned in an interview with the Financial Times.

But as Ukrainian soldiers continued to penetrate deeper into Russian-held territory on Sunday, more of them were willing to view the battle as a possible turning point.

Russian troops retreat as Ukrainian offensive advances in Kharkiv

In Zaliznychne, a small farming village 37 miles east of Kharkov, residents felt back to normal on Sunday, sleeping in bedrooms instead of basements for the first time in months and trying to connect with their families outside.

Kozinska has not seen her daughter since February — even though she lives 12 miles away — but she has just received word that she will be there to pick her up when the weather turns cold once officials open access to the village.

“I’ve always been terrified of winter,” said the woman, who suffers from lung problems, holding a just-distributed newspaper with a number she could call if she spotted a landmine. “We don’t have electricity, and it’s hard for me to pick up firewood.”

The first Russian soldiers to enter the village turned the sawmill into their base and fired rockets at Ukrainian troops in the town next door, without initially harassing residents, she said. When they shoot pigs on abandoned farms, they sometimes have residents slaughter some of the meat.

Death of a young Ukrainian soldier felt by family, friends and country

But as the occupation progressed, the army became more aggressive as the Russians rotated each month. One of them asked to borrow Kozinska’s phone.

“I gave it to him so he could call his mom, but he took my SIM card,” she said.

One of the medics treated Halyna Noskova’s back after she was hit by shrapnel in her front yard in June. Her 87-year-old mother pulled out the metal fragments. “It’s still hot,” she said. The Russians bandaged her.

“They helped me, but I’m glad we were freed,” said Noskova, 66.

Residents of the region adjacent to the Russian border are all Russian-speaking, and they describe treatment that is often more humane than that experienced by occupied communities farther west. The discovery of more than 450 bodies – many showing signs of torture – in Butcha, near Kyiv, has sparked international outrage over the atrocity.

“They’re not monsters, they’re children,” said Matviyenko, who had asked Russian troops to move tanks parked in front of her home. “I asked them what they wanted from us, and they said, ‘We could be here, or we could be in jail.'”

Others told villagers that they were not here to fight Ukraine, but to “protect us from the United States.”

Some say the biggest rule Russians have for residents is to be indoors by 6 p.m. and be quiet in the dark. Violating the order could be fatal, as the two men on the street knew early on. Maria Grigorova, who lives in the attached house next door, said the friends were drinking and the lights were on. The next morning, she found them on the floor.

“Constantine had two bullet holes in his head,” she said.

She and two friends buried them in the yard. On Sunday, the same two friends dug them up as Ukrainian war crimes investigators watched.

The team from Kharkiv collected two other bodies during the visit, including a security guard whose remains had been decaying for months on the asphalt plant’s gravel elevator floor, although the Russians used it as a sniper tower. An investigator repeatedly vomited on the guardrail as police collected the remains.

“We are investigating war crimes here,” said Sershi Borvinov, chief investigator of the Kharkiv Regional Police, as his staff waited for demining technicians to clear an area of ​​explosives before some bodies could be found .

Battle of Kyiv: Ukrainian valor, Russian blunders combine to save capital

Residents are afraid of the Russians, several villagers said. But they almost pity them for escaping the latest Ukrainian onslaught.

They said that during the first hours of the offensive, half of the soldiers fled in vehicles. Those trapped became desperate. Some residents overheard their radios requesting that the unit commander be picked up.

“They said, ‘You’re on your own,'” recalls Matviyenko. “They went into our house to get clothes so the drone wouldn’t see them in uniform. They took our bikes. Two of them pointed guns at my ex-husband until he handed them the car keys. “

Optimistic Ukrainian officials say they will no longer negotiate a peace deal that would keep Russia occupied on any territory, even in Crimea and eastern Donetsk, which has been controlled for years by Russia or Russia-backed separatists and parts of the Luhansk region.

“The point of no return is over,” Defense Minister Reznikov said at the Yalta European Strategy Summit in Kyiv on Saturday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday appeared to backtrack on his earlier assertion that now is not the right time for peace talks as Russia prepares for a sham referendum aimed at annexing occupied territories.

“We are not against talks; we are not against talks,” Lavrov said on state television. “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin.” Instead, “those who reject should understand that the longer they delay the process, , the more difficult it will be to negotiate.”

Robyn Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia. Mary Ilyushina in Riga and Isabelle Khurshudyan in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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