“They threw their guns to the ground,” Olena Matvienko said Sunday, while still disoriented, in a village filled with crates of ammunition and burning vehicles, including a Russian tank loaded on a flat roof. The first investigators from Kharkiv had just withdrawn to collect the bodies of civilians shot by the Russians, some of which had been exposed for months.
“I can’t believe we’ve been through something like this in the 21st century,” Matvienko said with tears.
The Russians’ hasty escape from the village was part of a startling new reality that surprised the world over the weekend: February’s invaders are on the run in some parts of Ukraine they captured early on in the conflict.
The Russian Defense Ministry’s daily briefing on Sunday included a map showing Russian forces retreating behind the Oskil River on the outskirts of the Kharkiv region – a day after the ministry confirmed its forces had left the Balaklia and Izyum districts of the Kharkiv region, following a decision. To reassemble.
On Sunday, Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zalogny said that Ukrainian forces have recovered more than 3,000 square kilometers of territory, a claim that cannot be independently verified, adding that they are advancing towards the east, south and north.
“Ukrainian forces have penetrated Russian lines to a depth of up to 70 kilometers in some places,” reported the Institute for the Study of War, which tracks the conflict closely. An assessment of the campaign published on Sunday said they had captured more territory in the past five days “than Russian forces in all of their operations since April.”
The apparent collapse of the Russian forces caused shock waves in Moscow. The leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who sent his fighters to Ukraine, said that if there were no immediate changes in Russia’s conduct of the invasion, “he would have to contact the country’s leadership to explain to them the real situation on the ground.”
Evidence of Ukrainian gains continued to emerge on Sunday, with images of Ukrainian soldiers raising a flag in central Izyum, after it had been abandoned by Russian forces, and similar images from other towns and villages such as Kendrashevka, Chkalovsky, and Veliky Komishovakha.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky refused to talk about his army’s next moves, except to say in an interview with CNN, “We will not stand idly by. We will move slowly, gradually forward.”
In a strong statement to Russia on Sunday night, Zelensky insisted that the invaders be expelled. He said, “Read my lips.” “Without gas or without you? Without you. Without light or without you? Without you. Without water or without you? Without you. Without food or without you? Without you. Cold and hunger and darkness and thirst are not as frightening and deadly to us as your friendship and your brothers.”
Ukrainians appeared in Chain of villages just liberated southeast of Kharkiv Praising the end of their ordeal, he wonders if it is really over. “God only knows if they’ll come back,” said Tamara Kozynska, 75, whose husband was killed by a mortar blast shortly after the Russians arrived.
Military experts warn that the matter is by no means over. Russia still controls about a fifth of Ukraine, and continued heavy bombing over the weekend in several regions. There is no guarantee that Ukraine can keep the retaken areas safe. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov warned in an interview with financial times.
But as Ukrainian soldiers Sunday continued to push deeper into territory once held by Russia, many of them were willing to see the campaign as a potential turning point.
In Zaliznychne, a small farming village 37 miles east of Kharkiv, residents were feeling back to normal life on Sundays, sleeping in bedrooms rather than basements for the first time in months and trying to connect with family outside.
Kocinska hasn’t seen her daughter since February – although she lives 12 miles away – but she just got a message that she’ll come to pick her up as soon as officials open access to the village, just as the weather cools off.
“I was so scared of winter,” said the woman, who had lung problems, holding a paper she had just distributed giving her a number to call if she found a landmine. “We have no strength and it is difficult for me to collect firewood.”
She said that the first Russian soldiers who settled in the village, turned the sawmill into their base and launched missile attacks on Ukrainian troops in the neighboring town, did not initially bother the residents. When they shot pigs on an abandoned farm, they sometimes let the residents butcher some meat.
But as the occupation continued, with the Russians rotating each month, the forces became more and more aggressive. Someone asked to borrow Kucinska’s phone.
“I gave it to him so he could call his mother, but he took my SIM card,” she said.
A paramedic treated Halina Noskova’s back after she was hit by mortar splinters in her front yard in June. Her 87-year-old mother pulled off the metal shell. “It was hot,” she said. Russian bandaged.
“They helped me, but I’m glad we got free,” said Noskova, 66.
The all-Russian-speaking residents of this region bordering the Russian border described humane treatment in general more than that experienced by the occupied communities further west. The More than 450 bodies discovered in BuchaNear Kyiv – many of them showing signs of torture – sparked international outrage over the atrocities.
“They were not monsters, they were children,” said Matvienko, who once asked Russian troops to move the tank they had parked in front of her house. I asked what they wanted from us and they said either we were here or we could be in prison. “
Others told the villagers that they were not there to fight Ukraine, but “to protect us from America.”
Many said the biggest rule for Russians for residents was to enter by 6 p.m. and stay there quietly and in the dark. Violating this order could be fatal, two men on the street learned early on. Maria Grigorova, who lives next door, said that friends were drinking and they had a light. The next morning I found them on the floor.
“Constantin had two holes in his head,” she said.
She and two friends buried them in the side yard. The same two friends dug them up on Sunday, while Ukrainian war crimes investigators watched.
The team from Kharkiv collected two more bodies during their visit, including a security guard whose remains were rotting on the floor of a gravel elevator at an asphalt plant months ago, even as the Russians used it as a sniper tower. One of the interrogators at the checkpoint vomited repeatedly while officers collected the remains.
“We are here looking into war crimes,” said Serhiy Polvinov, the chief investigator of the Kharkiv region police, as his crew waited for demining techniques to clear one area of explosives before they could retrieve some of the bodies.
Several villagers said that the residents were afraid of the Russians. But they almost pitied them in their struggle to escape the latest Ukrainian offensive.
They said that half of the soldiers fled in their cars in the first hours of the attack. Those who were stranded became desperate. Some residents heard their radio pleas to the unit commanders for someone to come to them.
Matvienko recounted: “They said, ‘You’re alone.’ They came to our houses to take clothes so that the uniformed drones wouldn’t see them. They took our bikes. Two of them pointed their guns at my ex-husband until he handed them the keys to his car.”
vociferous Ukrainian officials have said they will no longer negotiate a peace deal that would allow Russia to maintain an occupation presence in any territory, even in Crimea and part of the Donetsk and eastern Luhansk regions controlled by Russia or by Russian-backed separatists for years.
“The point of no return is over,” Defense Minister Reznikov said at the Yalta European Strategy Summit in Kyiv on Saturday.
Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, appeared to backtrack on Sunday from his earlier assertion that the time was not right for peace negotiations, as Russia was preparing for a round of sham referendums aimed at annexing occupied territories.
We are not against talks. Lavrov said on the state TV program, “We do not refuse talks. Moscow. The Kremlin. Put it in.” Instead, “those who refuse must understand that the longer they delay this process, the more difficult it will be to negotiate.”
Robin Dixon reports from Riga, Latvia. Marie Ilyushina from Riga and Isabel Khorshodian in Kyiv contributed to this report.