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Amid Counteroffensive, Heavy Fighting Ensues in Northeast Ukraine

As Kyiv pushes slowly forward with its highly anticipated counteroffensive, Russian forces attempt to break through Ukrainian lines.

Words: Hunter Williamson
Pictures: Hunter Williamson

Czech,* a Ukrainian combat medic, drove fast in his camouflage pickup truck to his unit’s position in northeast Ukraine. Russian forces about a kilometer away had already targeted him twice before with anti-tank weapons on this dirt road, he said.

Speeding down the gravel and dirt path east of the city of Kupiansk last week, Czech said that it seemed that the Russian forces were preparing to launch a new assault. But despite suffering heavy losses during a previous assault in May, Czech didn’t seem worried.

“We must be ready when the time comes,” he said. “And believe me, we are ready, so they will fail.”

As Kyiv slowly pushes forward with a highly anticipated counteroffensive in eastern and southern Ukraine, Czech and other troops with the 14th Separate Mechanized Brigade, an infantry unit equipped with armored personnel carriers and fighting vehicles, is attempting to hold the line in the country’s northeast. So far, they’ve been largely successful. But it has come at a heavy price amid reports that Russia has amassed a force of 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern front in a bid to break through Ukrainian defense lines. 

Heavy Losses in the Bid to Hold the Line

Driving quickly, Czech turned into a forest and made his way a bit further along a dirt road to his unit’s position, which he said was within several hundred meters of Russian forces. He parked under some foliage, exited the truck, and greeted three other soldiers, including his company commander, Captain Shustriy.

During the drive from a point outside Kupiansk, Czech had spoken highly about Shustriy. “Without him, I wouldn’t be here,” Czech said.

Captain Shustriy, a company commander in Ukraine’s 14th Separate Mechanized Brigade, speaks with Czech, a combat medic, at a position along the frontlines in northeast Ukraine in mid-July.
Captain Shustriy, a company commander in Ukraine’s 14th Separate Mechanized Brigade, speaks with Czech, a combat medic, at a position along the frontlines in northeast Ukraine in mid-July.

Shustriy struck a relaxed but professional pose as he stood near a makeshift table with ammo crates and wooden planks for seats. The 24-year-old captain has been a company commander since Russia invaded Ukraine in February of last year. He said he previously served in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia, regions to the south where the counteroffensive is underway, before coming to northeast Ukraine 10 months ago. He, Czech, and the other two soldiers seemed unphased by the artillery that exploded every couple of minutes around the forest.

“The situation is pretty intense here,” Shustriy admitted, saying that Russian artillery strikes had recently drastically intensified. “Yet still we hold the line.” Shustriy acknowledged that Russian forces had recently gained some territory, but he declined to specify details to avoid giving away his unit’s position. On Wednesday, July 19, Russia’s defense ministry reported that its forces had recently gained a bit of territory and captured a railway station near Kupiansk.

For the past several months, the frontlines in northeast Ukraine have remained largely unchanged. Russian forces had advanced far west of where Shustriy and his troops now were when they invaded last year, reaching the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, around 100 km (62 miles) west. But Ukrainian forces managed to repel the Russian assault and go on the offensive themselves. They pushed Russian forces to the east of Kupiansk in September and retook the territory where Shustriy and his troops were now positioned. Since then, neither side has made major advances. But as Ukraine moves slowly forward with its counteroffensive in eastern and southern Ukraine, Russia appears to be trying to break through Ukrainian lines in the northeast, possibly in a bid to divert Ukrainian forces.

Late last month, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, described the situation in eastern Ukraine as “difficult,” stating that Russian forces were launching an assault toward Kupiansk and the city of Lyman further to the south. A few days later, she said that Ukraine had repelled the assault. On Monday, 17 July, Maliar wrote on Telegram that Russia continued to focus its main battle efforts towards Kupiansk and other parts of eastern Ukraine. “Heavy battles continue,” she wrote on Telegram. “The enemy has been actively advancing since the end of last week in the Kupiansk direction of Kharkiv region.” She said Russian forces were looking for weak points and launching assaults with the aim of pushing Ukrainian forces back across the Oskil River that runs north-south through Kharkiv region and Kupiansk city. Russia aims to recapture lost territory and force Ukraine to divert forces from other parts of the country to the northeast, she added. “Our troops are on the defensive, putting up strong resistance,” she wrote. “The situation is complicated. Hot battles are going on now.” The next day, she said the Russian offensive was currently unsuccessful and that “the initiative is already on our side.”

“They were attacking us 24/7,” he said. “We lost a lot of our men, our battalion. I lost a lot of my good friends in May, and you know –” he paused, then continued, “it’s getting hard for me.”

Standing in a square atop a hill in Kupiansk last week, Andriy Kanashevych, the head of the city’s military administration, painted a difficult picture of the frontlines some 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away. 

“The situation is pretty tough there, the enemy’s trying to attack our positions,” he said, a pistol strapped to his waist. “They use their aircrafts to target our troops.”

While praising Ukrainian troops for putting up a strong defense, he seemed to concede that Russian forces have made some gains. But he downplayed their significance. “Even if they move forward for a bit, we kick them out,” he said. “So I can say that the front line is almost stable.”

Holding onto the territory has come at a heavy price, said Czech. He said that in May, Russian forces launched a strong offensive that inflicted heavy losses.

“They were attacking us 24/7,” he said. “We lost a lot of our men, our battalion. I lost a lot of my good friends in May, and you know –” he paused, then continued, “it’s getting hard for me. This shit hits me badly. After almost a year and a half, I can say I’ve seen so many people die. I’m a paramedic, and my duty is to save our men. Sometimes I fail, but in these one-and-a-half years, I saved 95 men.”

Future Needs

As Czech and his comrades held the line in northeast Ukraine last week, NATO leaders wrapped up a two-day summit in Lithuania where the question of Ukrainian membership featured prominently. While a clear path toward membership for the embattled country was not reached by the alliance’s members, Shustriy said he believed membership would benefit Ukraine because it would ensure a more stable supply of munitions and equipment. “It’s been a while since the full-scale invasion started, and we still don’t have enough ammunition and weapons,” he said.

Not wanting to provide what would be useful information to Russian forces, Shustriy refrained from specifying what supplies his unit needed. But behind him Czech shouted: “Drones!”

The Ukrainian troops said Russian forces in the area enjoy air superiority. Russians, they said, have been using a swarming tactic with drones whereby they attack with several at once. While the Ukrainian troops said they may be able to take down one of the drones, they can’t shoot all of them down. Russian and Ukrainian forces use drones for a number of purposes, ranging from observation and surveillance to attacks. One tactic popularized by both sides has been to drop grenades on enemy troops. The Ukrainian soldiers said Russian forces in their area had been dropping more powerful grenades that could destroy armored vehicles. 

A Ukrainian soldier sits in the back of Czech’s truck during a movement near the frontlines in northeast Ukraine in mid-July.

Captain Piatyi, the commander of another Ukrainian company in the area, said Russian forces had become smarter with their tactics and thereby more effective. “They’re much less dumb than they used to be at the beginning [of the war],” he said. Piatyi said Russia had underestimated Ukrainian forces’ morale and ability to resist when they invaded. “At the beginning, they miscalculated everything. That’s why they made some really stupid moves. And since then they have realized their mistakes… Now they act in a much smarter way. That’s why it makes it much more difficult.” 

In addition to the effective use of drones, the Ukrainian soldiers said that Russian forces have deployed former prisoners for assault and probing missions. In its daily report on 18 July, the Institute for the Study of War, a DC-based think tank that closely monitors Ukraine, noted reports that Russia has deployed penal forces, known as Storm Z units, towards Kupiansk.

The Russian mercenary group Wagner was notorious for using identical units, but Piatyi and other troops said the ex-prisoners used by the Russian military are even less equipped than the ones used by Wagner.

“It gives them very little chance to survive,” said Piatyi. But with more troops than Ukrainian forces, he continued, Russia isn’t concerned about casualty numbers. “They absolutely outnumber us. That’s why they don’t care about the number of their losses.” Taking out his phone, Piatyi showed a video of what he said were three such Russian soldiers captured a few months ago. Only one of the men had been armed, he said. “They don’t take responsibility for them being killed,” Piatyi said.

Despite more than a year of war, the soldiers said their morale is high and they are committed to continuing to fight. Piatyi said he was grateful for NATO military support, but he believed more needs to come quicker.

“We need them to act much faster, because now we are losing the very best of our men. And the Russians, they have like 140 million people still,” he said.

Like many Ukrainians, he’s convinced that if Russia wins, President Vladimir Putin will attack more countries.

“If Ukraine loses on the battlefield, Putin will then go to the Baltic countries and the rest of Europe,” he said. “His goal is not just Ukraine. He wants Europe to collapse, the European Union, and NATO in particular. Now, we have to react much faster to win the fight.” As he spoke, Czech left in his truck to pick up a Ukrainian soldier who had been injured nearby by Russian artillery. “This is not just the war between Ukraine and Russia,” Piatyi said. “It’s the war between good and evil.”

* All soldiers are identified by their call signs rather than their names to protect their identity.

Hunter Williamson

Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He covers the Middle East and Ukraine.

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