Town Makes Mockery of Putin’s Troops and His Sh*tty Arsenal – The Daily Beast

ROHAN, Eastern Ukraine—The sound of thunder fills the sky as dozens of rockets soar over our heads. “Stay here!” Leila, a young Ukrainian officer, tells us while she points out a nearby farmhouse to use for cover should the Russians return fire. In front of the farmhouse is a wrecked tank with the infamous “Z” sign spray-painted in white on its turret and body. In the field behind lays the carcass of a Russian helicopter.

Eighty-five-year-old Mykola Devyakato was a young child when the Nazis and the Soviets fought brutal battles over Kharkiv. “I think this is worse than World War II,” he told The Daily Beast on Thursday while he sat on a wooden bench looking over the destruction his own nearby town, Rohan, had suffered under Russian occupation.

Ukrainians liberated the town on March 26 but the area quickly became the site of a massive artillery duel. The Ukrainians now consider the village safe enough for the residents to return, but it doesn’t sound like that with the constant sound of explosions in the background.

Lyubov Zlubina is a local council member who owns a cattle farm on the outskirts of the town. She recalled when the Russians rolled into town and arrived at her farm, demanding to park their tanks in her animal pens. “Over my dead body!” she said she told them. “That can be easily arranged,” one Russian allegedly responded as he pointed his gun at her. They eventually decided to leave her alive, but not before using her car, home and various household items for target practice, Zlubina said. According to her, they burned down half her farm on the day they retreated from the town and killed 140 of her cows in the process.

There does not seem to be evidence yet of the horrific organized massacres in Rohan such as those seen in Bucha. But one military official said that two locals had been shot during the occupation and that one girl was raped. The girl has reportedly been evacuated and moved out of the country where she is undergoing psychological counseling.

85-year-old Rohan native Mykola Devyakato.

Tom Mutch

Unknown to us, a Ukrainian GRAD rocket launcher had been stationed in the tree line behind us during our visit to the front lines on Thursday. A few minutes after the first eruption of rockets, yet another barrage of rockets poured from a position just down the road. We heard incoming Russian fire returned, but they landed nowhere near us. Western counter-artillery radar and drones have unexpectedly given Ukraine an advantage in the artillery duels that are dominating the battles of eastern Ukraine.

A masked Ukrainian soldier stationed on the front line said that while the Russians had prepared a huge amount of artillery for the assault on villages like Rohan in Kharkiv Oblast, most of their equipment is completely dysfunctional. He predicted a swift Ukrainian victory that would push the invaders out of the rest of the occupied territories of the region within the next weeks.

A Ukrainian soldier patrols near a destroyed tank near the village of Rohan.

Tom Mutch

The front lines are only a few minutes’ drive from the village of Rohan, which was one of the first settlements to be captured by the Russians in their first lightning offensive on Kharkiv. They made it almost to the center of the city before being driven back by fierce Ukrainian resistance to the outskirts of the city. Frustrated, they never tried to take the city again. Instead, they planted artillery in the surrounding villages and pummeled the city mercilessly, driving hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes and making the city almost unlivable.

But now it seems that two months of misery is finally coming to an end for Ukraine’s second largest city. A fresh counterattack by the Ukrainian army has pushed Russian forces out of almost all the surrounding towns, culminating with the liberation of Tsurkuny just a few kilometers north of the city.

“The Russians shot at me and anyone trying to film them.”

Ironically, Putin’s planning had seen this week—and Monday’s Victory Day—culminating with a major win for Russian forces attempting to “liberate” the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Instead, it is the Ukrainians who have been crushing Russian forces. The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank that monitors military gains and losses in Ukraine, says that local forces are “retaking territory along a broad arc around Kharkiv… and potentially threaten to make further advances to the Russian border.”

There seem to be similar stories of Ukrainian success in every direction from Kharkiv. To the northwest is the town of Slatyne, which lies around 15 km from the Russian border. En route there are multiple Ukrainian checkpoints guarded by twitchy soldiers armed with rocket launchers and heavy machine guns.

As we approach the center of the town, two camouflaged Ukrainians soldiers jump out at us and tell us that the town is off-limits. One of them is wearing a patch with the Ghostbusters logo that says “SEPARbusters,” referring to the Russian proxy separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk that have been fighting the Ukrainian government for eight years. He reluctantly says they’ll look the other way if we hang out on the outskirts of the town.

The wreckage from a missile strike in the village of Chuhuiv on the road between Kharkiv and Izyum.

Tom Mutch

Twenty-two-year-old Slatyne native Andriy woke up first thing in the morning on Feb. 24 to sounds of gunfire and explosions. He showed me a video on his phone of Russian tanks coming down the neighborhood streets. “Of course, the Russians shot at me and anyone trying to film them,” he said with a grin.

He spent eight days in Slatyne while Ukrainian and Russian forces contested the city that was then a front line before managing to flee with a few friends. He is now living in Lviv and working as a hairdresser, but plans to return to Slatyne next week to pick up his car now that it is safe.

Though the Russian offensive has faced one humiliating blow after another in recent weeks, the relentlessness of the shelling has taken much out of the town and its residents. Slatyne originally had 7,000 inhabitants, and perhaps two or three hundred have stayed behind after the invasion. “They shell every hour. I was planting potatoes in my vegetable garden when it hit the house of my neighbor. Now if I hear rumbling, I run right away,” Anya Donchenko, a 62-year-old cleaner and one of the few residents of the town to remain, told The Daily Beast. She took us into her backyard and proudly showed us how she had replanted the potatoes that explosions had dug up.

Anya Donchenko a resident of Slatyne on the northern Kharkiv frontlines.

Tom Mutch

“I have a sister who is disabled and she wanted to live close to earth, because in Kharkiv she would stay in the flat all the time,” Donchenko said. “We wanted her to spend time outside, to do gardening. But now she is completely bedridden. She’s got coxarthrosis. I don’t know, we hope for nothing. The main thing is to have peace. We want things to be better. We want peace.”

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Town Makes Mockery of Putin’s Troops and His Sh*tty Arsenal – The Daily Beast

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