Ukrainians in the villages of Kharkiv describe the decline of Russia

Kobyansk, Ukraine

Ukraine had hoped it would be a turning point. It’s been six months since Russia launched its invasion, and Ukraine has since fired on with two counterattacks – one in the south and one in the east – carefully planned for months and backed by massive US military aid packages.

Even the messages were not left to chance. Before the first counterattack launched in the south on August 29, public communications were carefully designed to lay the foundation for the second Ukrainian military campaign in the east, which began last week.

Authorities denied journalists access to the front lines and only certain photos were allowed to be posted on social media by Ukrainian soldiers.

The result: the impression that Ukraine is effortlessly pushing Russian forces to retreat from the territory they have held for more than six months.

The truth, inevitably for a war zone, is much less clear.

CNN has been granted exclusive access to the town of Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region, just a day after images emerged showing soldiers raising the Ukrainian flag on the roof of the city’s town hall.

Far from being a city under full Ukrainian control, CNN has found one that it’s still fighting bitterly for.

On the outskirts of town, Vasyl – who declined to give his last name for security reasons – tells us that for days “they (the Russians) were bombing and bombing” in the fighting in Kharkiv.

On Sunday afternoon, the faint noise of incoming artillery fire was punctuated by the rumble of even rarer fire. Russian forces were still fighting for Kupiansk, a town important to their supply lines, linking their military base across the northern border in Russia’s Belgorod to Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region and the front lines in Donbas.

The commander of the Ukrainian army, General Valery Zalogny, announced, on Sunday, that the Ukrainian army has recovered more than 3,000 square kilometers (about 1,158 square miles) of land since the beginning of the month, most of which is believed to be located in the Kharkiv region.

On the ground, however, Kobyansk’s fate appears to be far from certain, suggesting that maintaining Ukrainian control over newly liberated lands in the region may prove difficult.

To the west, some villages saw calm fully restored as in the Zalzenichny district of the Kharkiv region, which was liberated last week, as the eastern counter-offensive accelerated. There, the fight seemed to be much less painful.

“I didn’t expect it to be so fast,” says Oleksandr Verbitsky, 66, who witnessed the Russians’ decline. “I went to the store and when I came back, everyone was running away. The Russians walked through the cemetery to escape. Can you imagine?”

Near Zaliznychne, Ukrainian investigators arrived, alerting them to possible evidence of a war crime. After discovering atrocities north of Kyiv – like Bucha – last April when Russian forces withdrew after just a month-long occupation, Ukrainian authorities know what to look for.

Ukrainian soldiers raise a flag on the roof of a building in Kobyansk, Ukraine in this photo obtained from social media posted on September 10, 2022.

War crimes investigators were among the group of officials who arrived at a dilapidated house to listen to Maria, who had to bury her neighbor and friend last February, just days after Russia crossed the Ukrainian border.

“I noticed that the door had been open for days,” says Maria Grigorova. “And when I checked whether they were alive or perhaps injured, I saw that they were cold and then I noticed two holes in Constantine’s forehead.”

Locals in Zaliznychne describe the occupation as “terrifying” and although a sense of life is returning to normal, fear of a return of Russian troops remains high in the air. Serhiy Polvinov, head of the Kharkiv region police investigation department who said they were recording apparent war crimes “in almost every village”.

“You never knew what the Russians were thinking,” Verbitsky says. “I made sure I never spoke to them because I knew they could hit me, so when they passed by me, I turned away.”

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