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Under the Russian Guns
Last month, even as preparations for a Ukrainian counter-offensive were intensifying, I visited Kupiansk, a town Kyiv took back from the Russians last autumn. Travelling with Kim Reczek, who took the photos, we also headed to villages further east living under the Russian guns.
Even as some in the west are wearying of the war and calling for accommodation with Russia, Ukrainians living in the east consider such talk naïve. They say that as long as Russian troops are in their country their lives will remain on hold.
In the distance the sound of the big Russian guns echoed across the fields. In the main street the town’s buildings stood like a row of old teeth - some damaged but functional, others blackened, and yet others missing altogether.
The municipal market, which was not far from an Orthodox church with damaged gilt domes, had burned to the ground, leaving a lattice of charred metal where the trading hub of this town of 30,000 residents had once stood.
Kupiansk, about 12 kilometres from the current frontline and 60 from Russia proper, is sometimes held up as a symbol of military conquest by Kyiv.
After more than six months under occupation it was liberated in a lightning offensive last autumn that returned a large swathe of Russian-held land east of Kharkiv, the country’s second city, to Ukrainian control.
A visit to Kupiansk, however, underlines the fact that the retaking of the town was no simple victory. For now at least the town is condemned to existing in a sort of twilight zone: theoretically free, but devoid of most of its inhabitants, under constant threat from shelling, and economically stagnant.
“Before the war life here was wonderful,” Olga, 46, who was selling chocolate, biscuits, cigarettes and coffee, said. “It looks calm now, but it’s not. You just never know where the next shell will land. This town is dying.”
For several months now, even as a Russian offensive in the east of Ukraine stuttered and finally faltered, Kyiv has been talking up a counter-offensive.
It has made little secret of the fact that it intends to use western-supplied tanks, artillery and a force of around 30,000 fresh soldiers to punch through Russian lines and seize back territory.
It may even try and reach the Sea of Azov, dividing Russia’s occupying forces and threatening Crimea.
The Ukrainian government believes that this will show the west that it is right to back Kyiv militarily, and may even tilt the war in its favour.
The risks, of course, are huge.
Russia has spent much of the winter hardening its defensive lines with trenches, tank traps and mines. Much of its military aviation wing is still in tact. Ukraine’s push is expected to be met with dogged resistance.
Western experts say that even with Nato-supplied materiel, the Ukrainian military will need impeccable timing and coordination, as well as a decent helping of luck to take back significant ground.
But the alternative scenario – a grinding war that eventually morphs into a patchy cease-fire and a frozen conflict – is likely to hobble Ukraine for years or even decades to come.
Worse still, Ukrainians fear that even if a peace deal could be agreed it would only be a matter of time before Moscow’s forces regroup, rearm, and try again. And the next time around the west is unlikely to be as united in its resistance as it is now.
On the day we visited Kupiansk those who still eked out an existence in the town – the old, the poor, the handicapped, and the stubborn – were gathering outside a shabby commercial building not far from a blown-up bridge.
Each resident carried a plastic bag or scratched Tupperware and waited for a handout. The reward for their patience, when it came, was a piece of cooked chicken, some buckwheat and a bowl of soup.
“About 300 people a day come here,” said Yekaterina, a 40-year-old volunteer. “There is not much clean water in the town. When there is cooking gas it is too expensive for most. People need a hot meal.”
For some locals the fact that the Russians have been forced out of the immediate area is cause enough to celebrate.
Svetlana, a 58-year-old farmer, had come into town by bus to sell eggs and tvorog, a type of soft cheese. She was asking 70 hrivna (about $2) for 10 eggs. In Communist times Svetlana had been an economist at a collective farm.
“The occupation was really difficult,” she said. “One time they ordered us to pray for the dead Russians. But I refused and just kept my mouth sealed. Now it is calmer. And you can say what you like.”
But Svetlana said her children and grandchildren had left to the relative safety of Kharkiv, an hour’s drive to the west. She had only stayed because she had not wanted to leave her three cows behind.
Across town we stopped at another small market. Here the sound of shellfire away to the east was louder. Most of the patrons were men in uniform.
The stalls were selling cheap power tools, pet food – cats and dogs have become much-treasured companions in this war-torn town – and some cheap Pakistani-made clothing.
A few kilometres up the road two locals had been killed the previous day by incoming rocket fire. But most people we met were resigned to their new circumstances.
“Sometimes it gets a bit scary - but where would I run to?” said 57-year-old Valentina who runs a market stall six days a week. “This is where I was born.”
Later we drove across the River Oksil and into the rich farmlands to the east. Our driver was Sergei, a local we had found through a contact in Kharkiv, who came from a village called Kurylivka, close to the frontline.
He said that part of the village was under Russian ‘fire control’ – a broad term which means that the Russians can see and target the area at will – but that we could visit Lena, his ex-wife, who still lived in another part of the village with her ailing mother.
“Growing up in the village was great,” he said as we drove east. “We ran around in the fields in the summer. We skated in the winter. Most people worked on the collective farm”.
When we passed through Podoly, where a man had been injured by a Russian shell the previous day, the streets were eerily empty. We saw the remains of blown-up armoured vehicles.
In Kurylivka, we spent an hour with 36-year-old Lena. She had spray-painted ‘lyudi’ (people) on her gate so that nervous soldiers knew there were civilians living in the house and would not shoot at them.
“When the Russians came last spring we hid in the basement,” she said. “Eventually we came out. They weren’t too aggressive but they did steal a lot, taking away machinery and even furniture.”
The Russians asked Sergei, a railway mechanic by training, to come and work for them. But he refused and ended up helping out at the local market and doing a bit of cab-driving.
“I must admit I was angry with our boys for running away and leaving us at the mercy of the Russians,” he said. “They barely put up a fight. But I was very proud when they came back again.”
When the Ukrainians counter-attacked there was heavy fighting in the village. Several Russian tanks and armoured vehicles positioned around the school and in the graveyard were destroyed.
Then when the Russian soldiers finally retreated some of the locals left with them, either out of sympathy or fear of Ukrainian reprisals.
When I asked if those villagers who left would be welcomed back, Lena’s face tightened.
“They wanted the Russian world and they can have the Russian world,” she said. “They can’t come back now. We both cook borsht, but we don’t cook it the same way.”
Even as I prepared to publish this story there were reports of fresh shelling in Kupiansk. There was no official word on casualties but cars were destroyed and houses were burning.
“We will have to rebuild all this with our own hands,” Sergei said. “But first we must win this war.”
NEWS & LINKS
+ After Kupiansk Kim and I travelled back to Kyiv and then Budapest. I spent the following week in Kosovo leading a study trip for Transylvanian students - more on that soon.
+ We are now recently arrived back at Wild Bear Lodge and readying for our spring bear-viewing season. The grass is growing fast, the river is rising with the meltwater, and it’s time to start opening up the cabins.
+ Over the coming weeks and months I will continue to post intermittently on this blog before returning to it full-time in the Fall. If you would like to follow our adventures in the BC wilderness with the bears you can also sign up to the Grizzly Bear Diaries below. Or you can also follow Wild Bear Lodge on Instagram and Facebook.