IIt’s a release, something Ukrainians have been waiting for six months now. According to President Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian army took more than 6,000 km2 from the Russian occupation, including some towns in Donbass, which the Russian army took months to seize.
Any image from a newly liberated city is watched with fascination. I was glued to one short video showing the Ukrainian army entering Balakliya – the first of the major liberated towns in the Kharkiv region. The ladies of the town emerged from the basements, hugging the servicemen and suggesting they stay and eat. “Boys, we have pancakes left,” they said. The soldiers begged, “We can’t now, please, maybe a little later,” they replied, in the tone children usually reserve for their mothers. “We have to keep going, and it’s dangerous here – you have to be evacuated.”
The speed and success so far has come as a shock, and it is extremely difficult for anyone to verify what is happening on the ground – the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff has unofficially restricted any journalist’s access to the front line during this operation. I’ve been covering the war for months now, and at a conference in Kyiv over the past few days, I had the opportunity to talk to senior Ukrainian military figures about the counteroffensive.
What we have heard so far is that the Ukrainian army managed not only to move the front line, but also to break the line and advance deep into the rear of the Russian army. Russian troops massively abandoned their positions, abandoning their equipment, their vehicles, their shells and even their money: in one of the towns, the Ukrainian police reportedly found 20 million Russian rubles (£290,000) left behind by occupants.
When a Russian general tried to pass off the retreat as a project “grouping”even Russian propagandists ridiculed him.
I spoke to a senior army officer who was surprised and still a bit suspicious about the outcome. “This is most likely a phenomenal mess on the part of the Russians. It could still be an ambush. The more we observe, the more it looks like the clumsiness of the Russian forces.
I also managed to catch Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, who told me with a smile that there should be “more surprises”. However, he became more serious and stressed: “If the morale of the Russians is low in the Kharkiv region, in the south, the airborne troops are fighting, and they are very motivated – and make the life of the Ukrainian army really difficult.”
People are generally optimistic. For the past five months, the Russian army has waged artillery warfare instead of engaging in direct battles. But a few days after this new offensive, the Ukrainian army claims to have captured thousands of Russian soldiers as prisoners of war. This raises hopes that at least 8,000 Ukrainian servicemen detained in Russia could be released in exchange.
But make no mistake: this is not an easy path. Ukrainian soldiers fight and die. Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I learned of the death of a fellow soldier from two of my friendskilled in the Kharkiv region in the past few days, and read about members of the National Opera who joined the army.
I have found that the most enthusiasm is expressed by international experts, diplomats and correspondents. Ukrainians are optimistic but suspicious. Each of us has a friend, relative or someone we know who is fighting in the field right now, someone we cannot contact or who could be sent on a mission.
So what happens next? The general feeling is that we should expect attacks on civilian infrastructure. Kremlin troops bombed cities they wanted to subdue, such as Severodonetsk and Mariupol, but refrained from destroying power plants in the rest of Ukraine.
The destruction of power grids would be worse when cold weather arrives – November and December. On September 11, the day after my conversation with Ukrainian officers, Russia fired missiles at power stations, leaving five regions without electricity: Kharkiv, Sumy, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro and Donbass. In Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, which suffered the most, two workers from an energy company were killed while trying to re-energize millions of people.
For now, the focus should be on the liberated regions. When the regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy were liberated in March, it was all about bringing normal life back as soon as possible: rebuilding, restoring energy, gas and water supplies, and restoring internet connection. A week after the fighting around Kyiv, the towns of Bucha and Irpin were full of people returning home.
Now the inhabitants of the newly reconquered territories have been asked to evacuate – they were not allowed to do so by the Russians during the occupation. Too many houses have been destroyed; the newly liberated villages are the new front line, and they are without gas, water and light – but also without Russians. by Zelensky recent address turned this scene into a slogan for the last stage of the war. Ukraine will happily live without gas or electricity as long as the Russians are gone. “Without you” is the new motto.
In one of the villages, the mobile connection is already working. So I called people to ask them what was going on. They spoke not of the horror of the occupation, but of the joy of liberation: “The Ukrainian soldiers who came were almost wounded, that’s how people hugged them; they almost crushed them in their arms.