(Note the profanity in paragraph 2.)
By Jonathan Landay
RUSKA LOZOVA, Ukraine (Reuters) – As three of his men piled dark earth into a chin-high berm to protect their trench, Ohor Obolenskiy gestured across sunny fields towards a covered ridgeline on Sunday of trees sweeping the near horizon.
“We can see the Russian positions from here and say, ‘Fuck you, Russians,'” the 35-year-old Ukrainian commander joked in broken English, his grim face crinkling into a broad smile.
The amalgam of National Guard and volunteers he leads seized Ruska Lozova in heavy fighting on May 8, four days after the start of a counter-offensive that thwarted Russia’s attempt to s capture Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.
The counter-offensive is Ukraine’s most successful since it expelled Russian troops from the north of the country and around the capital kyiv in late March, and marks a new turning point in the battle for the east.
For the first week, Ruska Lozova’s troops said the Russian shelling was so intense that they could only move through the now devastated village at night.
Always alert to high explosives regularly dropped by Russian artillery and tanks, Obolenskiy and his men made little effort to hide from the enemy cowering along the ridge line three kilometers from the.
One reason, they said as Reuters toured their positions, was that the uneven cloud made it difficult for Russian drones to target their positions.
Another was because they believed the Russians, while trying to keep them pinned down, had withdrawn their forces in a withdrawal towards their border. From there, they believe, these troops are redeploying south to support a Russian campaign to seize the entire Donbass region, which has largely stalled.
“There’s less shelling from the Russians,” said Mikhayl, one of Obolenskiy’s lieutenants, giving only his nom de guerre as he sat in a smell-soaked basement. unwashed troops encamped in its gloom. “We think they are backing off.”
Yet the troops holding the village, deserted by almost all of its 5,000 residents and a horde of abandoned cats and dogs, are not ready to celebrate what some media outlets have begun to hail as their battle victory. from Kharkov.
They are still fighting the Russians – they lost two soldiers on Saturday – whose helicopter gunships are searching their low-altitude positions to avoid the American-made Stinger missiles with which Obolenskiy’s troops are armed.
Moreover, Obolenskiy and his aides said they remained concerned that despite heavy losses in men and equipment, Russian President Vladimir Putin could launch a new offensive against Kharkiv, 20 km to the south.
“We think it’s possible the Russians will come back,” said Mikhayl, a tall man who declined to reveal the contingent’s total casualties. “Putin will never forgive us. It will be difficult for him to explain to the Russian people why his special operation is over.
Putin said he launched what he called a special military operation on Feb. 24 to protect his nuclear-armed country from a threat posed by what he calls a fascist government in kyiv. kyiv and its foreign supporters call it an unprovoked war of aggression to subjugate Ukraine.
“ALL THE WAY TO SIBERIA”
Ukrainians sheltering in deserted houses, cellars and garages around Ruska Lozova have no doubt that Russian forces deployed around the Kharkiv region will withdraw across the border. But they disagreed on what to do next, with several saying they wanted to take the fight to Russia.
“I want to go as far as Novosibirsk. The videos I’ve seen of what they did leave me no choice,” growled Mihkayl, referring to a city in Siberia and alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces against Ukrainians. Moscow denies targeting civilians.
Obolenskiy, however, said he feared Russian forces could shell Ukrainian troops from within their border in a deliberate ploy to trigger comeback barrages that would allow Putin to justify escalating the conflict to suck up the conflict. NATO.
“Putin wants to start a war with NATO,” said Obolenskiy, who believes an escalation should be avoided by creating 10km-wide buffer zones on either side of the border.
Fighting for Ruska Lozova devastated the village which lies in a crease cut by the Lozovenka River through the hills north of Kharkiv. A bridge over the river was broken into two blackened halves by fire.
The detritus of war litters the fields and the rutted alleys dug with shell craters and lined with destroyed and damaged houses.
A working Russian T-72 tank captured by the Ukrainians sat in the shade of a carport, ready to be used against its original owners.
A young officer, who gave only Klem’s first name, walked briskly through untended orchards, leading a visitor to abandoned Russian bunkers littered with molded rations and military equipment.
When the Russians advanced to the outskirts of Kharkiv in February, he said, the village was a rear base.
“Now,” he said, “their front line is in those trees, two miles away.”
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Peter Graff)