“Look, these are our boys”: Ukrainian forces lead Russian tanks on the new front line

Vehicles were seen on and around a destroyed bridge in Kobyansk.  (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
Vehicles were seen on and around a destroyed bridge in Kobyansk. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

KOBYANSK, Ukraine – The front line is now the Oskil River, which runs through the city center of Kobyansk in eastern Ukraine. On one side are the accused Ukrainian forces who drove their Russian enemies almost entirely out of the northeastern Kharkiv region during an all-out counteroffensive this month.

From her bedroom window, 26-year-old Lisa Udovic looks out the other side, where the Russians have pulled out. The sound of gunfire from Ukrainians shook her apartment in the past few days, as the Ukrainian army moved into Kobyansk and the city became a battlefield. Russian tanks and armored vehicles still roam the streets, but the Ukrainians are driving them with the Russians’ weapons left against them.

Yudovic began to count the seconds between the deafening thud of artillery and the sound of smoke in the distance. From Tuesday to Wednesday only, the gap increased, stretching from 9 seconds to 13 seconds.

“They were pushed back,” she said with a smile.

Oskil became a shield for the Russians on September 9. As the Ukrainians approached, the invading forces crossed the bridge and blew it up behind them to slow Kyiv’s advance. Suddenly, Kobyansk was cut off from its second half. The next morning, 55-year-old Lena Danilova stared in confusion at the Ukrainian cars driving the city streets. A man beside her tightened her sleeve, pointing to the different uniforms of the soldiers who were patrolling the area now.

“Look, these are our boys,” he whispered to her. Danilova said that she wiped away tears of joy.

“Finally,” she said. But then she had a sick realization. Two of her children were stuck on the other side of the river. They went to attend a school there just days ago. Now it is the line on which the Russians are desperate to stop Ukraine’s hard-line advance south, into the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

After Kobyansk was captured without a fight only three days into the war, the city at least escaped Russian bombardment. People here now face some of the horrors of war that other Ukrainians experienced months ago. Many said they waited and hoped for Ukraine’s liberation, but did not imagine it would be like this: the threat of Russian bombing, no force in the city and no way to get essential medicines. Locals quickly packed their essentials and evacuated them in a hurry with volunteers this week, evoking images of the early days of the war.

Valya, 58, left her cats behind. She lined up bowls of water on the floor of her apartment, and left a key with her friend to feed them.

With only Russian state TV channels, a Kremlin propaganda tool, available in Kobyansk for the past six months, people were cut off from independent news about what was happening in Ukraine. The Russian government prohibits the media from even calling this war a war, preferring to call it a “special military operation”, and the information is tightly controlled.

While evacuating with her mother, Udovic was asked if she knew of the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers against civilians in Bucha, including torture and murder – which was major international news in April. Odovic shook her head.

“Bocha?” Udovic said. “I think I heard something about her, but I’m not sure.” She said the Russian channels she watched at times instead focused on how Europe might face an energy crisis this winter as the flow of Russian natural gas is reduced.

People spoke in faint voices about what happened during the occupation because they say that part of the population is sympathetic to Moscow, and if the Russian soldiers return, then the neighbors can inform the neighbors. The Udovic family has torn itself apart. Her grandmother stopped talking to her sister after she hung the Russian flag outside her house.

On February 27, just three days after Russia launched its unprovoked massive invasion, the mayor of Kobyansk, Gennady Matsegora, posted a video on Facebook acknowledging the surrender of the city to the Russian army. Matsegora was a member of the pro-Russian Ukrainian party.

“Today, at 7:30 am, the commander of a Russian battalion called to propose negotiations,” he said. “If it is refused, the city will be stormed ‘with all the consequences.’ I have decided to participate in the talks to avoid casualties and destruction in the city.”

Odovik, considering herself a Ukrainian patriot, admitted that Matsegora would certainly be considered a traitor. But her feelings are complicated.

“For the citizens of course, this decision may have saved lives,” she said. We didn’t hear those explosions that we hear now. At first it was quiet, but we knew that in the end, it would all start.”

The Russians used Kobyansk as the seat of the occupation government. A propaganda radio station called “Kharkiv-Z” – the letter “Z” has become a symbol of the Russian army – was launched in local stores. Only residents can make calls to Russia. Even without the formal annexation, the city became so incorporated into Russia that Odovic had a relative visit from Vladivostok, the Russian city located in the Far East near the North Korean border. The authorities created by Moscow announced that people could obtain Russian passports.

Danilova said that she was forced to send her children to school, even though she knew that the Russian curriculum would be taught. People were threatened that if they did not do this, their parental rights could be revoked. Others said they feared the strict 8 p.m. curfew because there were rumors that people would disappear if they were caught outside the past time.

The Russians had used Kobyansk as a transport hub, moving hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers through it and toward what was then the front line. Some of these same vehicles returned – trophies of the Ukrainian army using equipment that the Russians left behind during their retreat.

On Thursday, as gunfire could be heard across town, the sound of shells falling on the liberated side of the river was rarely heard – a sign that the Russians’ ammunition depots could be depleted after Ukrainian strikes and a rapid withdrawal forced them to abandon or destroy much of it.

On the way to Kobyansk, the Ukrainians were moving pontoon bridges, preparing to cross the river and continue their advance. The banner announcing the city, painted white, red and blue – the colors of the Russian flag – has been demolished and reduced to rubble.

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