As CNN becomes the first international television crew to enter Eiseum since it was retaken by the Ukrainians on Saturday, the team encounters a city that has just woken up to its new reality: that six months of occupation is over.
A Ukrainian military source told CNN that Izyum has now been “liberated,” along with almost the entire Kharkiv region. The city represents a huge strategic loss for the Russian army, which used it as a major base and resupply route for its forces in eastern Ukraine, and demonstrates the speed and scale of the rapid Ukrainian counterattack in the northeast.
Along with a parallel offensive in the south, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday, he had regained a total of 6,000 square kilometers (about 2,300 square miles) of territory. Russia said the withdrawal of its forces from the region was “tactical” in order to focus resources on the Donbass region.
In Iseum, work is still in progress to make the city center completely safe. The Ukrainians are seeking to capture the few Russian soldiers still in hiding, and anyone who worked with them during the occupation. The city also remains in a complete information blackout, with no phone signal or data – a tactic used by the Russians throughout the occupied territories.
From what the CNN team has seen, locals are relieved to see their city in Ukrainian hands.
Although the streets of Izyum were largely quiet, residents would occasionally venture outside their homes and wave in front of passing CNNs or military trucks, shaking hands with any Ukrainian soldiers they encountered.
But at the same time, fear of the Russians still gripped the city. Most residents contacted by CNN were too afraid to speak freely about what had happened there in recent months.
A couple in their fifties agreed to talk, using only their first names.
They celebrate Ukraine’s victory over the city, Valery said, calling it a “balm for the soul.”
And he said: “We called upon God to be liberated without fighting and without blood, and this is how it happened.”
The sound of distant bombing is a constant reminder that despite impressive gains in this counterattack, the war is not yet won – and many parts of Ukraine are still in the crosshairs of Russia’s arsenal of heavy weapons.
But slowly, the Ukrainians are working to return Izyum and other restored lands to something close to normal.
During a CNN visit, a group of Ukrainian soldiers set off victoriously in a steam tank. With apparent joy, they quickly attached it to a Russian self-propelled artillery vehicle, which was abandoned intact by the Russians’ withdrawal. This weapon is among the most powerful in Russia’s arsenal and will be used for counterattack purposes in Ukraine.
When asked if it was a difficult battle to retake the city, the tank driver who commanded the howitzer replied, “Not really.”
The Ukrainians gained an enormous amount of weaponry from these battles in the Northeast, where many Russian troops sacrificed their chariots intact in order to escape with their lives.
Inside the abandoned Russian command center
One of the final confrontations In the battle of Izyum, according to the Ukrainian army, it took place in a former school that was used as a base for Russian troops. The Russians surrounded the building with deep trenches, sandbags and armored vehicles.
The building is now damaged, piles of red bricks and a radiator intertwined with broken windows and timbers collapsing from the roof. Next to the building is a red truck shell on its side bearing the “Z” emblem of the Russian forces.
Further from the road is the building that those forces were trying to protect: the Russian command post, hidden in an underground bunker under an abandoned factory.
Rows of mismatched school desks lined the bleak basement, with job titles plastered on white posters—including commanders of air defense, artillery, intelligence and state security, along with lower-ranking titles like “service officer.” Nearby, Ukrainian forces still found booby traps left to protect their hideout – including a wire that had tripped a grenade.
Another dim concrete room opposite the command post served as sleeping quarters, with old wooden doors placed horizontally on piles of bricks or jerry cans to create temporary beds. It seems that the retreating troops left hastily, leaving clothes, toothpaste and papers scattered on the floor and beds.
A Ukrainian soldier showed CNN the green rotary phone the troops had left behind. Russian technology! mocked – in english.
Above ground, the Russians also left piles of ammunition.
Besides the loss of weapons, and the humiliating retreat depicted in multiple videos and shared across social media, a military official told CNN that a large number of Russian prisoners of war had been taken by Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers triumphed in spirit as they drove through town, brandishing their newly acquired tanks and trucks, many of them bearing a ‘Z’ tale already.
“Who did we come to free him here?”
Valery from Ezeum said that the locals in the city are angry with the Russians for their behaviour.
“Where there were no people, (the Russians) stole everything,” Valery said. “They lived like pigs. We entered one house – and pigs live better.”
Valery said the fighting in Izium began on March 4, when eight Grad rockets landed near their house, which was “scary” but fortunately did not hit them directly. One of the missiles destroyed their next-door neighbor’s house, but she survived without a scratch.
He said that Russian forces who had arrived in the city early in the war quickly realized that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for the invasion – his “de-Nazification” of Ukraine – was a lie.
“My (Russian) gunner came and said: Dad, we saved you from the Nazis,” said Valery. I told them show me one.
Valery said that he spoke to the young soldiers in Russian and tried to make them see that they were destroying the once close relationship between Ukrainians and Russians, especially in this part of the country so close to the border.
“I told them that they destroyed a man’s house and that he is from the Kursk region (Russia),” Valery said. “Everyone here has relatives in Belgorod (in Russia) and other cities.”
Once, he said, Russian reconnaissance troops came to him and asked him: “Who did we come to liberate here?”
This confusion and disillusionment among the Russian ground forces may have been a major factor in their withdrawal from this region in the past week.
But what is most dangerous for Putin is the collapse of the command and control system in his army in the Kharkiv province. These high-ranking officers fled their hiding, while their men gave up their heavy weapons as they fled.
Ukrainian forces will try to keep them on the run and may hope one day they will return to Moscow with the story of what happened in Kharkiv and demand accountability from their leaders.