As Russia prepares to annex four Ukrainian regions, Kiev’s forces complete the task of driving Moscow’s retreating troops out of a fifth and threatening their enemy’s supply lines.
On Friday, Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia regions will be annexed to Russia in a Kremlin ceremony opposed by most international capitals.
But the Kharkiv region, an early target of the Moscow invasion on February 24 and home to Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking second-largest city, will not take part in the event after an impressive counteroffensive.
On Thursday, Ukrainian tanks and armored personnel carriers maneuvered unhindered through the industrial city of Kupyansk in eastern Kharkiv region, once a major Russian supply hub.
Kupiansk is home to a badly damaged bridge over the Oskil River, a natural barrier that the retreating Russians tried to hold, and a railway line that was once used to supply the occupying forces.
“This is an important railway junction that connects to the Luhansk region and then to the Russian railway system,” said Ukraine’s new military administrator of Kupiansk, Andriy Kanashevych.
“In terms of logistics and supplies, it was obviously important that they control it,” he said.
Despite the collapse of their front in front of the city of Kharkiv and their disastrous retreat through north-eastern Ukraine, Russian forces attempted to hold Kupyansk, leaving destroyed tanks in their wake.
– ‘car for his mother’ –
By September 19, the west bank of the Oskil was in Ukrainian hands, but an artillery duel was underway and the built-up areas on the east bank were still fiercely contested.
On Thursday, for the first time, the city was safe enough for firefighters and civilian volunteers to pass food packages hand-to-hand across the destroyed bridge ruins.
A lone corpse in Russian uniform lay at the eastern end of the span under a cloud of flies while medics carried sick and wounded civilians back west on stretchers.
“It’s a Lada Kalina for his mother,” one of the Ukrainian volunteers joked about the body, referring to reports that Russia was compensating the families of killed soldiers with new cars.
The bridge’s road deck has collapsed into the river and only the pedestrian walkway along the side is passable for troops and civilian refugees crossing between the banks.
Two dozen men are needed to get the 2,000 crates of food delivered by the British across the gap to be loaded onto a truck and distributed to the recently liberated areas on the east bank.
Despite the damage to the bridge in the city center, Ukrainian forces have found an alternative route to bring heavy vehicles, including tanks and western-supplied APCs, to the eastern side.
The tanks have swarmed out, supported by infantry and – despite the occasional shell hit – have secured a large area of ??the city, including places that have been occupied for seven months.
The battle has cut off water and electricity and many civilians have fled the country, leaving Kupiansk at around 10–15 percent of its pre-war population of 27,000, according to Kanashevych’s estimates.
As recently as Tuesday, Russian troops were still in the Kupjansk-Wuslowji industrial area five kilometers south of the bridge, and civilians are only expected to withdraw.
“It was really tough, really tough. We were scared…without water, without electricity, without gas, without cellphone connection,” said Ludmyla Nagaytseva, 52, as families cooked outdoors.
“There was no way. Only today we managed to pick up a weak signal.”
On Thursday, a Ukrainian armored personnel carrier and an infantry platoon stood guard in front of the district cultural center as local residents boarded buses to take them to the bridge.
– “Like in prison” –
An old man stumbled out of the building screaming and clutched the left side of his chest. When his knees buckled and he fell to the ground, the force’s medic rushed over to administer first aid.
The speed with which Kupyansk fell in the early days of the February invasion raised suspicions that the region’s Russian-speaking population has divided loyalties between Kyiv and Moscow.
Most locals AFP encountered seemed relieved at Ukraine’s liberation, and some were overjoyed. One man, 30-year-old business owner Maksim Korolevsky, said the city had been betrayed.
“On February 24, many people, about 200 local people, came to the recruitment center to fight for Ukraine,” he told AFP, blaming the city’s former pro-Russian mayor Gennady Matsegora.
“But on February 25, Russian APCs with Russian flags and Russian soldiers were at the scene. what could we do There was nothing we could do,” he complained of harassment and searches.
“Any pro-Ukrainian opinion was punished by Russia,” he said. “Seven months of occupation, it was like being in prison.”
The Russian flags and soldiers are now gone from Kupyansk, but the infamous “Z” symbol of the invasion is still visible – painted on wrecked military vehicles and bullet-riddled civilian transporters.
Bloated corpses in military boots lie next to two cars.