Ukraine’s offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR


A soldier who was previously an IT contractor and asked to be identified only by his call sign “Arun” stationed Friday at a checkpoint in Borshchova, northeastern Ukraine. Ukrainian troops recaptured the area from Russian forces earlier this month.

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Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

A soldier who was previously an IT contractor and asked to be identified only by his call sign “Arun” stationed Friday at a checkpoint in Borshchova, northeastern Ukraine. Ukrainian troops recaptured the area from Russian forces earlier this month.

Pete Kiehart for NPR

BORSCHOVA, Ukraine — In this village recently recaptured from Russian forces, a Ukrainian soldier points out the network of trenches left behind by Russian troops. Narrow pits are dug in front of just about every house. “Look,” he said. “House, trench. House, trench.”

The soldier from the 229th Battalion of the Ukrainian 127th Territorial Defense Brigade says he is only allowed to give his wartime nickname, Engineer. His unit was involved in a multi-day battle to drive the Russian forces out of Borshchova. The small farming village, which is now completely destroyed, lies about 10 miles north of the city of Kharkiv and 10 miles south of the Russian border.

Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

A car that was heavily damaged, salvaged for parts and marked with the “Z” that has become the symbol of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, seen in Borshchova on Friday.

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Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

A car that was heavily damaged, salvaged for parts and marked with the “Z” that has become the symbol of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, seen in Borshchova on Friday.

Pete Kiehart for NPR

The Russian army quickly overran this part of northeastern Ukraine in the days following its February 24 invasion of Ukraine. In the months that followed, the area was fiercely contested by both sides until Ukrainian troops finally pushed the last Russian forces and their allies out of Borshchova on 11 September.

Residents of parts of the Kharkiv oblast (region) report that Russian military lines quickly crumbled at the first news of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Social media in Ukraine has brought to light stories of Russian soldiers ripping off their uniforms, dropping their weapons and fleeing towards the border. But while there were signs of a hasty Russian withdrawal in parts of Kharkiv Oblast, Ukrainian soldiers here tell NPR that the Russians in this part of the region were well entrenched, well equipped and opposed significant resistance. Ukrainian troops’ views on the counteroffensive in Kharkiv offer critical insight into ongoing efforts to push back Russian forces elsewhere in the country.

Fortified positions and surveillance in each building

The engineer said that Russian soldiers and troops of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic had strategically fortified their positions in Borshchova.

“In every high building they had so-called eyes,” he says, referring to surveillance cameras. “So there were positions from where they were watching us. They had very good equipment.”

The Russian forces were doing all they could to prevent the engineer unit from advancing.

First, the Russians blew up the bridge on the road approaching Borshchova. Then they laid anti-personnel mines on the outskirts of the village. As the Ukrainians advanced, the Russians pounded them with artillery shells. The Ukrainians in turn retaliated with their own artillery.

A fierce fight that destroyed the village

Every house in Borshchova is either damaged or completely destroyed. The only inhabitants are a few stray dogs and a few young cats that emerge from piles of bricks and broken beams.

Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

On Friday, civilians line up to receive humanitarian aid in Lyptsi, a village near Borshchova.

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Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

On Friday, civilians line up to receive humanitarian aid in Lyptsi, a village near Borshchova.

Pete Kiehart for NPR

Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

On Friday, rubbish litters an old Russian position in Borshchova.

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Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

On Friday, rubbish litters an old Russian position in Borshchova.

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The engineer points his toe at a machine gun position with sandbags. There are so many used Russian grenade launchers lying around that he jokes they could be taken home as souvenirs.

“Here are some Russian weapons they used against us,” he said, pointing to a pile of green tubular grenade launchers in the grass.

The engineer commander, who goes by the Nom de Guerre Authority, says the Russians did not easily abandon this part of the Kharkiv region.

“They dug really hard into the ground, so we literally had to dig them up,” he says.

Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

“Engineer” and “Authority” in Borshchova on Friday.

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Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

“Engineer” and “Authority” in Borshchova on Friday.

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Easy to restock which made it hard to take

It is an area backed by the Russian border, which allowed it to be easily supplied by road from deep within the Russian Federation.

The authority shows NPR a roadblock on the main road north of Borshchova that had been manned by two Russian armored personnel carriers hidden in a grove of trees. The machines plodded forward on their metal tracks, fired south with machine guns at the advancing Ukrainians, then retreated into the bushes.

The stretch of road is now covered in spent bullet casings. The authority says Russian forces appeared to have an inexhaustible supply of ammunition.

Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

Spent large-caliber ammunition on the road to Borshchova on Friday.

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Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

Spent large-caliber ammunition on the road to Borshchova on Friday.

Pete Kiehart for NPR

The counter-offensive in this part of Ukraine began on September 5. And over the course of a week, Authority says its troops had to do everything they could to dislodge the Russians.

The authorities will not give any information on the Ukrainian victims of the counter-offensive. Injuries and deaths are considered military secrets in Ukraine. Authority won’t even explain his own obvious lameness. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently told French media that his forces were losing around 50 soldiers a day across the country during the war.

Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

An abandoned Russian vehicle in Borshchova on Friday.

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Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

An abandoned Russian vehicle in Borshchova on Friday.

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It was not until the fifth day when the Ukrainians shelled Russian positions around Borshchova that Moscow’s forces began to pull back significantly. Even then, according to Arun, another Ukrainian soldier who took part in the offensive, Russian artillery covered his retreat to the border.

Arun, also his nom de guerre, worked in IT. Now he holds a Ukrainian checkpoint on the main road north of Borshchova. They are looking for collaborators, monitoring traffic and establishing a presence so that Russian forces do not try to return.

Every step of the Ukrainian advance towards the border was difficult, says Arun, “because our enemy had more weapons, more people and a lot of artillery”.

The battle for the small village of Borshchova could illustrate the difficult task facing Ukrainian soldiers as they attempt to retake large parts of Ukraine still occupied by Russian troops.

Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

On Friday, a soldier retrieves plastic cups and plates from a burnt-out house in Borshchova.

Pete Kiehart for NPR


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Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was tough and bitter, say soldiers who fought: NPR

On Friday, a soldier retrieves plastic cups and plates from a burnt-out house in Borshchova.

Pete Kiehart for NPR

Polina Lytvynova contributed to this report


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