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ExclusiveOn the Kharkiv front

In town with uncertain loyalties, confident Ukrainian troops face down Russian fire

The Times of Israel joins a Territorial Defense unit in a heavily-shelled sector, and discovers bright, self-assured soldiers eager to chat — and to show off their Hebrew

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

  • Oleksander, an officer in the Territorial Defense Force's 128th Battalion, drives on the road to Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022  (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Oleksander, an officer in the Territorial Defense Force's 128th Battalion, drives on the road to Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Officers in the Territorial Defense Force's 128th Battalion and a local translator walk through Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022  (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Officers in the Territorial Defense Force's 128th Battalion and a local translator walk through Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • An officer in the Territorial Defense Force's 128th Battalion walks past a Chuhuiv school, July 28. 2022  (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    An officer in the Territorial Defense Force's 128th Battalion walks past a Chuhuiv school, July 28. 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Oleksander (L) and Volodymyr (R), officers in the Territorial Defense Force's 128th Battalion, speak to The Times of Israel near Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022  (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Oleksander (L) and Volodymyr (R), officers in the Territorial Defense Force's 128th Battalion, speak to The Times of Israel near Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Oleksander (L) and Volodymyr, officers in the Territorial Defense Force's 128th Battalion, speak in Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Oleksander (L) and Volodymyr, officers in the Territorial Defense Force's 128th Battalion, speak in Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

CHUHUIV, Ukraine — Russian forces have been ramping up their shelling of Chuhuiv, eastern Ukraine, in recent weeks.

The agricultural city of 30,000 became an important target in the opening hours of the war, as its military airport came under missile fire on February 24. Apartment buildings were hit too, with at least one boy dying on that first day.

Chuhuiv itself came under Russian occupation for several days, until Ukrainian troops liberated the city on March 7. With their maneuver war subsequently stalling on the outskirts of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mykolaiv, the Russians have since retreated their forces and reverted to their considerable artillery and missile capabilities to pummel Ukrainian cities. Three civilians in Chuhuiv were killed on July 16, when Russian missiles hit a residential building and school.

Then, nine days of shelling and rocket attacks later, Russian S-300 missiles slammed into the city’s House of Culture, which housed a theater, cafe, and gym. Since the beginning of the war, it had also served as a kitchen for refugees. A 36-year-old volunteer cook from Uzbekistan and two women were killed in the attack.

The city, located about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the current Russian lines, is now being defended by the 128th Battalion of the Territorial Defense Forces’ 112th Brigade.

Normally a Kyiv-based formation, the brigade was moved to Chuhuiv in May after taking part in the successful defense of the capital.

Rescuers remove debris following a Russian missile attack in Chuhuiv, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, July 25, 2022. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

While away from the front, it’s a potentially perilous arrangement for the volunteer fighters, and not just for the reasons one might expect.

The Kharkiv region is Russian-speaking, and shares close economic and social ties with its massive neighbor less than an hour’s drive away. Many of Chuhuiv’s farmers sold their produce to Russia before the invasion. According to Oleksander, a Kyiv resident now deployed in Chuhuiv with the 128th, a significant percentage of the locals could be Russian sympathizers.

Local school buildings in which the battalion was quartered were hit by precision strikes on multiple occasions. Oleksander and his fellow Kyivans believe that local collaborators are sending their positions to the Russians. The force now changes its location every few days.

“The civilians are not openly hostile to us,” Oleksander explained, “but the information is leaked sometimes, so we have to be alert. The people here are hard workers, they grow produce and used to sell it to Russia. Now they are without work and need someone to blame.”

“Some of them are waiting for the Russians,” he said.

Prior to Russia’s invasion, it was assumed that many in Ukraine’s east felt an affinity toward Moscow. In fact, it has been widely reported that Russian leaders had expected to be warmly welcomed by much of the local population, and were surprised by the ferocity of Ukrainian resistance. Since then the savagery of war had done much to unite Ukrainians and stir patriotic feelings, but some Russia supporters no doubt remain.

The Times of Israel could not confirm the level of sympathy for Russians, or willingness to collaborate. But some level of pro-Moscow sentiment isn’t hard to stumble across.

Kharkiv resident Eduard gestures toward an apartment building in which his wife was injured during a Russian strike. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

At a Kharkiv apartment complex struck by a Russian missile, a local named Eduard refused to speak in Ukrainian on Wednesday. While other Ukrainians are usually quick to expound on the evils of Russia, he said simply he had no opinion on Vladimir Putin when asked — even though his wife was lightly wounded in the attack.

The harshest war

The Times of Israel joined Oleksander and Volodymyr on Thursday in their Mitsubishi pick-up truck from the Kharkiv suburb of Rohan eastward toward Chuhuiv.

Map of Kharkiv area. (Google Maps)

Both speak like the highly educated family men they are: Oleksander, 52, is a Kyiv lawyer and father of four, and Volodymyr, 57, is an army psychologist.

But there is steel beneath their avuncular personalities.

Oleksander served in the Soviet military in Afghanistan and fought in Georgia, though he wouldn’t say for whom exactly. “This is my third war,” he said.”This war is the harshest. It’s an artillery war.”

Volodymyr also served in the Red Army, then joined the Ukrainian armed forces in 2014.

Oleksander, an officer in the Territorial Defense Force’s 128th Battalion, smokes a cigarette on the road to Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

They were both well outfitted, holding AK-47s with silencers. They carried pistols, grenades, magazines, hunting knives and personal radios in their camouflage vests. Both men wore fingerless tactical gloves.

We bounced along dirt roads between seas of sunflowers, heading south toward Eskhar on the Siverskyi Donets River. As smoke rose in the distance from a recent strike, the pair explained that the Russians have up to three times as many artillery pieces in the area as Ukraine does. But the disparity is decreasing, as Western countries pour howitzers and precision ammunition into the country.

“They still have bigger numbers, but we can hit more precisely,” said Volodymyr.

A major contributor to Ukrainian forces’ increased precision is the US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System multiple rocket launcher. HIMARS has a longer range, much better precision and a faster rate of fire compared to the Soviet-designed Smerch, Uragan and Tornado launchers used by both Russia and Ukraine.

In this May 23, 2011 file photo, a launch truck fires the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) produced by Lockheed Martin during combat training in the high desert of the Yakima Training Center, Washington. (Tony Overman/The Olympian via AP, File)

A HIMARS battery had been operating in a nearby forest that morning, the men said. But the highly mobile system had already been moved to another location.

“They come in, they shoot their target, and in 10 minutes they’re gone,” Oleksander explained. “They’re constantly being transferred between locations.”

The HIMARS batteries are making a noticeable difference on the battlefield, the soldiers said. Ukrainian forces have been able to strike Russian ammunition depots, forcing them to use older systems that are far less precise: Moscow used two X-22 anti-ship missiles to carry out the June 27 attack on Kremenchuk that hit a mall and left 20 dead. Designed to destroy massive naval ships using nuclear warheads, the Cold War-era missiles are notoriously inaccurate against ground targets.

Russian military vehicles move on a highway in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces near Mariupol, Ukraine, Monday, April 18, 2022. (AP/Alexei Alexandrov)

Russian forces also enjoy a marked superiority in drones, said Volodymyr. “They have Russian-made drones — they might not be a very high-tech solution, but they have a lot of them. And they are also really good with radio location and radio warfare.”

Russian electronic warfare units regularly hack into Ukrainian drones and take them over, and are often able to identify the location of Ukrainian drone operators and provide the coordinates to artillery forces.

One day you can be fighting against an elite Russian unit, and another day you can be fighting a numerically superior enemy that makes very poor decisions.

But Ukrainian forces enjoy clear advantages as well.

“We’re on defense right now,” said Oleksander. “Defense always has advantages over being on offense. And also we’re protecting our land, and at the moment we have the support of the West.”

The quality of the Russian units they’ve fought has varied wildly, they said. Some units are skilled and fierce, “but most of those units have been destroyed already,” Oleksander said.

“Most of the new recruits are very poorly educated and poorly trained. One day you can be fighting against an elite Russian unit, and another day you can be fighting a numerically superior enemy that makes very poor decisions on the battlefield. You can instantly tell the difference.”

At one point, the two burly men stepped out of their jeep to smoke on the outskirts of Eskhar. To the east, an undulating field of sunflowers stretched out to meet a thicket on the horizon.

Broken red bricks covered the road, and the soldiers explained they were there to help aid vehicle traction during wet spells.

“When it rains, it’s just impossible to get through,” Oleksandr said. “We put down all this brick from the destroyed school where the soldiers of our unit died in a Russian strike.”

An encounter with the Rebbe

We continued to the school, on a central intersection in Eskhar, which seemed like it had endless shattered bricks to offer. A burnt-out military vehicle sat covered in concrete and rebar.

Oleksander, an officer in the Territorial Defense Force’s 128th Battalion, observes the damage in front of a school in Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Inside, a grade book with neat cursive writing lay open on the ground among scattered homework assignments and books. Where the exterior wall had collapsed, bookshelves balanced precariously.

We moved on to an intact school building further down the road where some of the battalion is now staying. There, the men told a group of soldiers under a tree that I was a journalist from Israel.

Mah nishma?” said a smiling soldier with a goatee, coming over to greet me in Hebrew. “Hakol beseder?”

The man, Vadim Arestov, had studied Hebrew in a Kyiv ulpan course. He had last been to Israel just before the COVID-19 pandemic to visit his many friends in the country.

A school in Chuhuiv destroyed by a Russian strike, July 28. 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Arestov, a luxury real estate executive with no military background who now serves as the battalion’s civil affairs officer, said he hadn’t been thrilled with Israel’s irresolute positions on the war, but said it doesn’t affect his love for the Jewish state.

“It’s quite difficult,” he said. “And I hope the majority of Israelis are on our side. But I know there are plenty of pro-Soviet and pro-Russian people there. And I don’t care about their opinion. Not at all. I feel respect to the State of Israel.”

“I’m not happy about our leaders as well,” he continued. “But am yisrael chai. That’s what I can say.”

Arestov asked the young soldier guarding the site to call someone from the building. A stout man wearing camouflage pants and a gray t-shirt emerged. “His nickname is Rebbe,” said Arestov.

He then added laughing, “because he’s a Nazi of course,” an apparent reference to Russia’s claims it is fighting against Nazi forces in Ukraine.

The man, Sergiy, identified himself as Jewish and said he was connected to Kyiv’s Jewish community. “There are many Jewish soldiers,” he said, stressing that the mix of faiths in the army was not a source of tension in any way.

Sergiy, a civil affairs officer in the Territorial Defense Force’s 128th Battalion, stands with his son in Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

“We have one goal because there’s an enemy that came into our land,” he said. “So we are doing everything we can just to stay a country and to beat the enemy.”

When asked about his profession before the war, Sergiy, 50, responded with a smile, “It doesn’t sound good to be a Jewish plumber, so I’m a Jewish electrician.”

The young guard was his son, it turned out. The two signed up together to fight. “It’s the person I can trust the most over here,” Sergiy said. “That’s my main support.”

His son added: “We just help each other with everything, do everything together.”

The two even celebrated their birthdays together on the front lines in early June. They couldn’t arrange for a cake, “but there was no artillery fire, so that’s a celebration. We appreciated it,” said Sergiy.

‘We have to win’

We drove on toward Chuhuiv, passing a power station still smoking from an artillery strike hours earlier that killed a policeman and left the city without electricity. Business-like fire crews unrolled hoses and walked around the site.

The destroyed military airport sprawled out on the right just before we entered the city. Despite the Russian attempts to ground the Ukrainian Air Force, fighter jets and attack helicopters still operate in the area, the men said, while the Russians no longer venture into Ukrainian airspace in the area after suffering significant losses.

“At the moment, the only thing is Sukhoi planes approaching the front at a very low altitude, firing missiles, and turning around,” said Oleksandr. “This is the only tactic.”

The destroyed House of Culture in Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

After stopping at the devastated House of Culture in Chuhuiv and a damaged music school, we crossed the Siverskyi Donets river and headed through the forest toward Izyum on a road closed to civilian traffic.

We passed checkpoints manned by the battalion. Oleksandr gave that day’s password — “Lullaby” — to get through. We stopped by a group of around twenty soldiers digging trenches.

Despite the deadly rocket strikes and the ongoing war, with no end in sight, it was impossible not to appreciate the beauty of the scene. The green woods were awash in warm sunlight, and pine needles blanketed the soft forest floor. The sweet smell of freshly cut wood wafted in the mild summer air.

And, let it be said, there is a magnificence to confident young combat soldiers, intelligent young men in the prime of their lives, hard at work for a cause far bigger than themselves.

The soldiers, digging their trenches two kilometers from the front lines, would have looked entirely at home on a Kyiv university campus if Putin had not invaded their country and upended their lives.

“You’re from Israel?” a shirtless soldier yelled toward me. “We like you, you destroyed the drone factory.”

Days before, Ukrainian media had reported that Israel targeted an Iranian drone depot in Syria. Russia is expected to acquire hundreds of drones from Iran for use against Ukrainian forces, and some reports have claimed the alleged Israeli strike impeded that effort.

Alex, a 26-year-old from Kyiv, said he had dropped out of college and had been working as a bartender until the war (his best cocktail is a Negroni, he boasted). He signed up for the Territorial Defense at the start of the invasion and hasn’t had a vacation since.

A volunteer with the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces in Kharkiv, Ukraine, March 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Marienko)

“I need to protect my family, my country,” he said in English. “I don’t want Russia here.”

Alex has not been in direct combat with Russian forces, but regularly comes under artillery fire. “There is some fear when it comes in [toward] you,” he said. “But generally, we’re trying to hold on wherever we are — we’re calm here.”

After the war, Alex said, he wanted to open a car business with his friend Valentin, then gestured toward a bespectacled shirtless soldier smoking a cigarette. The 24-year-old Kharkiv native looked more like a video gamer than a soldier, but he’s a veteran of combat in the Donbas region.

“They’re not good fighters,” Valentin said, referring to the Russians. “They have artillery superiority. And if they didn’t have that, they would’ve been destroyed right away.”

Valentin stressed that Ukraine needs more precision-guided munitions. “It doesn’t matter if Western partners will provide the weaponry. If they don’t, we’ll have to figure it out on our own. We have to win.”

The trench system, built over the course of two weeks, harkened back to the World War I Western Front a century before. About six feet deep, it was impeccably constructed, perhaps not surprising in a country with a rich woodworking heritage. A dozen thin pine branches were stacked carefully along the sides of the trenches. Some ditches were covered in pine boughs, while others were open to the sky. Wooden ladders provided firing positions and ways out.

A concrete bunker stood at one entrance. Inside, a Russian-made PK machine gun pointed down the road toward the front lines. Full combat vests were stacked inside, with soldiers’ nicknames velcroed to the front. “Vader’s” vest was on top.

Dreaming of rest

As Volodymyr and Oleksander drove me back toward Kharkiv and my car, we passed a truck carrying ammunition for a HIMARS battery. Volodymyr’s thoughts turned to his plans after the war.

“The best thing would be just to retire,” the 57-year-old therapist said. “But we’ll see, I want to get some rest. But I might come back to work.”

Volodymyr, an officer in the Territorial Defense Force’s 128th Battalion, speaks about his future near Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

As we said our goodbyes, Volodymyr likened the threats against Ukraine to those that my home country faces.

“It’s not only Putin, it’s a big part of the Russian nation,” he said. “It’s kind of similar to Israel and to Muslims trying to destroy Israel. So they just — we live better than them, and we think this is why they’ve been doing this for so long.”

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