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Ukraine's offensive in Kharkiv was hard and bitter, say soldiers who did the fighting

A soldier who was formerly an IT entrepreneur and asked to be identified only by his call sign "Arun" manning a checkpoint in Borshchova, in northeastern Ukraine, on Friday. Ukrainian troops took back the area from Russian forces earlier this month.
Pete Kiehart for NPR
A soldier who was formerly an IT entrepreneur and asked to be identified only by his call sign "Arun" manning a checkpoint in Borshchova, in northeastern Ukraine, on Friday. Ukrainian troops took back the area from Russian forces earlier this month.

BORSHCHOVA, Ukraine — In this village recently retaken from Russian forces, a Ukrainian soldier points out the network of trenches left behind by Russian troops. The narrow pits are dug in front of just about every house. "Look," he says. "House, trench. House, trench."

The soldier with the 229th Battalion of Ukraine's 127th Territorial Defense Brigade says he is only authorized to give his war nickname, Engineer. His unit was involved in a days-long battle to drive Russian forces out of Borshchova. The small farming village, which is now completely destroyed, is about 10 miles north of the city of Kharkiv and 10 miles south of the Russian border.

A car that has been heavily damaged, scavenged for parts, and marked with the "Z" that's come to symbolize Russia's invasion of Ukraine, seen in Borshchova on Friday.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
A car that has been heavily damaged, scavenged for parts, and marked with the "Z" that's come to symbolize Russia's invasion of Ukraine, seen in Borshchova on Friday.

The Russian military quickly overran this part of northeastern Ukraine in the days just after its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. In the ensuing months, the area was fiercely contested by both sides until Ukrainian troops finally pushed the last Russian forces and their allies out of Borshchova on Sept. 11.

Residents in some parts of the Kharkiv oblast (region) report that Russian military lines quickly collapsed at the first news of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Social media in Ukraine highlighted stories of Russian soldiers ripping off their uniforms, dropping their weapons and fleeing back toward the border. But while there were signs of a hasty Russian withdrawal in parts of the Kharkiv oblast, Ukrainian soldiers here tell NPR that the Russians in this part of the region were well dug in, well-equipped and put up significant resistance. The Ukrainian troops' perspective on the counteroffensive in Kharkiv offers critical insight in to ongoing efforts to push back Russian forces elsewhere in the country.

Fortified positions and surveillance in every building

Engineer says the Russian soldiers and troops from the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic had strategically fortified their positions in Borshchova.

"In every high building they had so-called eyes," he says, referring to surveillance cameras. "So, there were positions from where they were watching us. They had very good equipment."

The Russian forces were doing everything they could to block Engineer's unit from advancing.

First, the Russians blew up the bridge on the road approaching Borshchova. Then, they laid down land mines on the edge of the village. As the Ukrainians pushed forward, the Russians pounded them with artillery shells. The Ukrainians in turn punched back with artillery of their own.

A fierce fight that destroyed the village

Every house in Borshchova is either damaged or completely destroyed. The only residents are a few stray dogs and some young cats that emerge from the piles of bricks and shattered timbers.

Civilians wait in line for humanitarian aid in Lyptsi, a village next to Borshchova, on Friday.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Civilians wait in line for humanitarian aid in Lyptsi, a village next to Borshchova, on Friday.
Detritus litters a former Russian position in Borshchova on Friday.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Detritus litters a former Russian position in Borshchova on Friday.

Engineer pokes his toe at a sand-bagged, machine gun position. There are so many spent Russian grenade launchers lying around that he jokes they could be taken home as souvenirs.

"Here are Russian weapons that they used against us," he says, waving at a pile of green tubular grenade launchers in the grass.

Engineer's commander, who goes by the nom de guerre Authority, says the Russians didn't give up this part of the Kharkiv region easily.

"They dug in to the ground very hard so literally we had to dig out them," he says.

"Engineer" and "Authority" in Borshchova on Friday.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
"Engineer" and "Authority" in Borshchova on Friday.

Easy to resupply, which made it hard to take

This is an area that backs up against the Russian border which allowed it to be easily resupplied by road from deeper inside the Russian Federation.

Authority shows NPR a roadblock on the main road north out of Borshchova that had been guarded by two Russian armored personnel carriers hidden in a thicket of trees. The machines would lumber forward on their metal tracks, fire south with machine guns at the advancing Ukrainians and then retreat back into the bushes.

The section of road is now covered in spent bullet casings. Authority says the Russian forces appeared to have an endless supply of ammunition.

Spent large-caliber ammunition on the road in Borshchova on Friday.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Spent large-caliber ammunition on the road in Borshchova on Friday.

The counteroffensive in this part of Ukraine started on Sept. 5. And over the course of a week, Authority says his troops had to use everything they could to dislodge the Russians.

Authority won't give any information about Ukrainian casualties in the counteroffensive. Injuries and deaths are considered military secrets in Ukraine. Authority won't even explain his own obvious limp. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently told a French news outlet his forces have been losing about 50 soldiers a day nationwide in the war.

An abandoned Russian vehicle in Borshchova on Friday.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
An abandoned Russian vehicle in Borshchova on Friday.

It wasn't until the fifth day of Ukrainians pounding Russian positions around Borshchova that Moscow's forces started to pull back significantly. Even then, according to Arun, another Ukrainian soldier who took part in the offensive, Russian artillery covered their retreat all the way back to the border.

Arun, also his nom de guerre, used to work in IT. Now he's manning a Ukrainian checkpoint on the main road north of Borshchova. They're searching for collaborators, monitoring traffic and establishing a presence so that Russian forces won't try to return.

Every step in the Ukrainian advance toward the border was difficult, Arun says, "because our enemy had more weapons, more people, and a lot of artillery."

The battle for the little village of Borshchova could illustrate the difficult task ahead for Ukrainian soldiers as they attempt to retake the large chunks of Ukraine still occupied by Russian troops.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A soldier scavenges plastic cups and plates from a burnt-out home in Borshchova on Friday.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
A soldier scavenges plastic cups and plates from a burnt-out home in Borshchova on Friday.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.