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On the Kharkiv Front Ukrainian Soldiers are Galvanised by Victory and Western Arms

“We don’t know if we’ll still be alive next week, so we live as if there’s no tomorrow.”

Ukrainian soldier Oleksandra. Photo: Joseph Roche
Ukrainian soldier Oleksandra in Kharkiv Oblast. Photo: Joseph Roche

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Serhii, a soldier in the Ukrainian army, walks in the dark under a summer rain. Equipped with a headlamp, he makes his way through tall grass.

In the distance, reddish flashes fracture the sky. “Russian artillery,” the 45-year-old whispers, pointing towards the front line in Kharkiv Oblast.

After a few minutes of walking, we arrive at a village located a few kilometers from the Russian lines.

Ukrainian solider Serhii. Photo: Joseph Roche

In front of a small wooden house, Sacha, one of the soldiers from the unit, stands guard.

Inside, his comrades are sleeping. In the corners of the room, assault rifles and backpacks are piled haphazardly.

Denis, 35, is not sleeping. Lying on his bed, eyes fixed on the ceiling, he counts each artillery shot. “They’re getting closer,” he murmurs.

All from the region, the soldiers of the unit have been fighting on the Kharkiv front since the beginning of the new Russian counter-offensive that started on 11 May.

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Although weeks of intense combat have taken a toll on their faces, their spirits are high.

On 17 June, Volodymyr Zelensky said after receiving reports from the military command, “Our forces are gradually pushing (Russian troops) out of Kharkiv Oblast.”

“The fighting has been very tough,” explains Viatcheslav, one of the unit commanders, adding: “Once again, with the limited equipment and men we had, we managed to stop the Russians.”

For the commander, it’s proof that Ukraine will eventually win the war. “We know why we are fighting, especially here in Kharkiv, where our families and friends live. So of course, we are even more motivated.”

When we capture Russian prisoners, we can see that they don’t know why they are fighting. To me, they have no chance of winning the war.

Viatcheslav, Ukraine army commander

The Donbas Front

While the first weeks of the Russian offensive were marked by Ukrainian uncertainty in holding the front, the Russian assault in Kharkiv Oblast ultimately failed. Nevertheless, despite this positive outcome for the Ukrainian army, it is still struggling in the Donbas, where its forces have been gradually retreating since February.

For Hamlet, the unit’s chief drone operator, the Russian dynamics in the Donbas are not related to the Russian counter-offensive in Kharkiv Oblast.

Hamlet, the Ukrainian unit’s chief drone operator. Photo: Joseph Roche

“We knew the Russians would launch an offensive in this sector. We prepared for it and sent reserve units allocated to this part of the front,” he explained to Byline Times. “There has been a dynamic in the Donbas for several months explained more by the efforts of the Russian army and our lack of ammunition than by any real strategy on their part.”

Serhii, one of the brigade’s soldiers, is more categorical: “For Moscow, Kharkiv is Russian, so they try, as at the beginning of the war, to take as much territory as possible. I don’t think they are thinking beyond that.”

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Hamlet, though, does not hide the fact that Ukraine is still forced to allocate some of their forces to defend Kharkiv, which could have been used to fight in the Donbas, particularly in Chasiv Yar, a logistical hub of the Ukrainian army that has been under constant pressure from the Russian army for months. 

“It’s hard to say for now whether or not it will have a real impact on our defence in the Donbas. It’s too soon to tell.”

Galvanized by their success on the Kharkiv front, Viatcheslav continues to believe in an imminent victory. “We stopped the Russians. The front is stabilised. The offensive wasn’t a surprise, and they had to sacrifice a lot of men and equipment that they can no longer use in the Donbas.”

Viatcheslav in front of a destroyed Ukrainian tank. Photo: Joseph Roche

Viatcheslav also believes that the hard days are behind them and that Western aid is beginning to be felt on the front line. “I can’t reveal everything because it’s classified, but all I can say is that we are seeing an improvement in our capabilities and that our brigade has received more than we could hope for.”

Ansar, who commands a unit of foreign fighters, is much more direct about the arrival of Western aid. “We have almost doubled our firing rate since the beginning of the Russian offensive. This allows us to maintain enough firepower to keep the Russians at bay.”

Originally from Chechnya, Ansar is part of an elite unit sent to Kharkiv before the start of the Russian offensive. “We knew they would attack, so we went on reconnaissance behind their positions to harass their logistical lines.

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“But now that we have Western authorisation to strike Russian territory with their weapons, we can just hit their logistics with HIMARS,” explains Ansar, who also confides that, in his opinion, this offensive highlights the dysfunctions of the Russian army.

“The Russians had no particular strategy. They just knew we were about to receive a new influx of American aid, so they tried to exploit this window of opportunity to break our front. Again, without success.”

Keeping the Faith

Back from the mission, the team settled in a wooden house about ten kilometers from the front, busies themselves preparing a meal.

Vadim, 40 years old, shirtless, cuts a chicken and prepares shashlik on a metal skewer. Next to him, on a wooden chair, Denis, 35 years old, smokes a cigarette and heats a coffee pot on a small stove. Everyone, around a rusty metal barbecue, relaxes and laughs.

The Ukrainian unit preparing a hot meal. Photo: Joseph Roche

Serhii explains that they try to have a good time and eat well almost every night. “We don’t know if we’ll still be alive next week, so we live as if there’s no tomorrow.”

“It’s also important to keep morale up, and we need moments of relaxation,” explains Viatcheslav. “They have all been fighting since the beginning of the war and don’t see their families often.”

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Yann, a former bus driver in Kharkiv, has seen his wife and daughter only about fifteen days since February 2022 when Russian launched its full-scale invasion.

Around a piece of meat, the 45-year-old man confides. “At first, the hardest part was not seeing our families. Then it was Bakhmut, where I was injured. Now, it’s the waiting, not knowing what tomorrow will bring.”

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