Wrecked Russian armor and corpses of Russian troops line the roads in northern Donetsk as Ukraine pushes deeper into Donbas

By Yaroslav Trofimov

Sept. 27, 2022

The Wall Street Journal


RUBTSY, Ukraine—The Ukrainian military offensive that ousted Russian troops from the Kharkiv region early this month has now crossed deep into the northern part of the nearby Donetsk region, increasingly threatening Russian control over lands that Moscow seeks to annex as sovereign territory in coming days.

Here in Rubtsy, a village in the Donetsk region that Russia captured in late April, advancing Ukrainian forces stream east past burned-out carcasses of Russian tanks and the bloated bodies of Russian soldiers that remain on roadsides. Trophy pieces of Russian armor are being towed in the opposite direction, to be repaired and reused.

The Ukrainian push here, east of the Oskil River, aims to encircle the strategic town of Lyman, where street battles have begun, and ultimately target the northern parts of the nearby Luhansk region. Russia is wrapping up sham referendums it is staging in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as Donbas, and two occupied regions of southern Ukraine, aiming to formally incorporate them into Russia as soon as this week.

Demoralized by recent defeats in Kharkiv, Russian soldiers on this front line continue to retreat, despite arriving reinforcements. On Sunday, Ukrainian forces took several prisoners in a nearby village because many of the Russian soldiers were drunk, said a Ukrainian soldier. “The ones who were sober ran away, and the ones who were drunk didn’t even realize that the village was being attacked, and got caught,” he said.

The soldier showed off two recently captured Russian T-80 tanks that had been towed to his position, the Russian tactical sign Z on their armor painted over with the white cross marking Ukrainian armor on this front. One only needed a battery change, he said. The other would require more intensive repairs because the retreating Russian crew had thrown a hand grenade into the barrel. “We’ll fix them and use them against the Russians,” he said.

In addition to the offensive in the northern Donetsk region, Ukrainian forces in recent days also expanded their foothold east of the Oskil river in the area of Kupyansk, the seat of Russian administration for the roughly 3,500 square miles of the Kharkiv region that Ukrainian forces liberated this month. That defeat forced Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to mobilize hundreds of thousands of reservists, and to call the annexation referendums. A separate Ukrainian push south of Lyman this month reclaimed the town of Svyatohirsk that Russian forces seized as recently as July.

Ukrainian forces remain on the defensive in other parts of the Donetsk region, such as the city of Bakhmut that Russian troops led by the Wagner mercenaries have been trying to storm for over two months, and Avdiivka near the regional capital. Russia currently controls about two-thirds of the region.

Here in the northern Donetsk region, Ukrainian forces are pursuing the remains of the Russian army that retreated from the city of Izyum in the southern Kharkiv region on Sept. 10. That pullback, described by the Russian Ministry of Defense as a deliberate redeployment to better protect Donbas, was far from orderly, as judged by a large quantity of burned-out Russian armor along the road east of Izyum and in the pine forests surrounding it.

One tank had its turret flip upside down and land on top of it, the body of a crew member carbonized between the plates of his flak jacket. Somehow still intact, Russian Army rations of bacon were scattered by the wreck. Another tank sank while attempting a pontoon crossing over the Oskil, just its barrel and the top of its turret visible above the river’s fast waters.

Russian soldiers fleeing Izyum have scattered in small bands during the retreat, said the commander of a Ukrainian Army company that established an outpost in Rubtsy three days ago.

“Many are still hiding in the woods, some with weapons, some without weapons. That’s why we have to be vigilant, especially at night,” said the commander. “Sometimes they come out to the road by themselves to surrender because they have no food, no water, no nothing.”

With no electricity or cellphone service in the area, many of the remaining residents of Rubtsy, a leafy village with a prewar population of 1,500 people, flock to the commander’s outpost, using its Starlink terminal to communicate with relatives and friends elsewhere in Ukraine and abroad. There is no other Ukrainian government presence here so far.

“Mostly old people have remained in the village,” the commander, with the rank of captain, said. “They come for help, and we help with whatever we can—especially medication.”

As he spoke, a battered car with several villagers rolled up. “Please, don’t hand us over again; we’ve had enough with all this shooting. I can’t take it anymore,” Maria Savchenko implored as she asked for access to Wi-Fi. Anatoly Konoplya complained that six homes were destroyed by Russian bombs behind his street. Under the Russian occupation, he said, “we were like mice, sitting all the time in the basement and not coming out.”

Shortly after the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, Anatoly Khutornoy and his wife, Tetyana, moved to Rubtsy from the city of Slovyansk, which remains under Ukrainian control, hoping to sit out the war in what seemed like remote countryside. Instead, they have had to live through two battles, first when the Russians seized the village on April 26, and then when Ukrainian forces reclaimed it this month.

“We thought it would be quiet here, and it turned out quite the opposite,” Mr. Khutornoy mused. He asked visitors for a cigarette, something that has been unavailable here for weeks. “I am so desperate for a smoke. I am ready to roll up my own ears.”

His wife, still rattled by the recent fighting, said she was relieved that the Ukrainian army was back. “This day couldn’t have come soon enough. We are here on our own land, and those people came here saying they want to free us. Free from what?”

Under Russian rule, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a proxy statelet that Moscow established since occupying parts of the Donetsk region in 2014, created its own administration in Rubtsy, naming a new village mayor. These officials and other collaborators have all escaped as the Ukrainian army arrived, said Vladimir Gurenkov, a retired miner from Donetsk city who moved here in 2010.

He recalled, pained, the day when the Ukrainian army retreated under fire in April. “I am so glad Ukraine is back now,” Mr. Gurenkov said. “Putin wanted to show his strength here, and he just lost. The Russian world has collapsed.”

In the nearby village of Lozove, secured by Ukrainian forces on Saturday, 17-year-old Ivan Buddenyi was also giddy with delight. “We have been waiting for this day ever since these animals came in,” he said as he examined his school, which served as an outpost for Russian forces. Its windows were blown out, doors pushed in. “We couldn’t live normally as long as they were here,” he added, shouting “Glory to Ukraine.”

Villages such as Rubtsy have survived the two changes in control with relatively limited damage, except for the main square, which bears the traces of Russian aerial bombing in March. But others, such as the village of Yatskivka, are nearly completely destroyed, with twisted remains of burned houses and fragments of armored vehicles meshed together amid giant craters.

One of a handful of remaining residents in Yatskivka, a retired woman, tried to extinguish a lingering fire in a bombed-out building next to the remains of her home. She brought bucket after bucket of water from a swimming pool in a former resort across the street that was used by Russian troops. Melted military walkie-talkies lay on the ground and a warning sign “Mines” was scrawled by the entrance.

“I have lived here all my life, happy with everything Ukrainian, and Putin just came and brought here his Russian world. Now everything is burned down, nothing is left here,” the woman lamented as she filled another bucket. She said she was too afraid to give her name. “If they come back,” she added, “they could execute me.”