Vyacheslav Madievsky/NurPhoto via Reuters
BALAKLIA, Ukraine — Lyudmila Varona says her hometown of Balaklia, in northeastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, wasn’t ready when the Russians took control in early March.
“We didn’t have extra food or toiletries,” says 60-year-old Varona. “And the children were scared from all the shelling. We were very cold and hungry.”
So when Ukrainian troops retook Balaklia late last week — the first of a series of towns they quickly liberated as part of a recently launched counteroffensive in the east of the country — residents were elated.
“We were very happy,” Varona’s friend, 60-year-old Valentina Dotsenko, excitedly recalls. “We cried, we kissed each other, we kissed our soldiers, we hugged them… It’s hard to put into words.”
The return of the district happened surprisingly quickly; so quickly that the Russian troops retreated in such haste, they left behind a lot of military equipment and vehicles, and did not release the people they had detained—and reportedly tortured—in a prison in Balaklia.
Society of Kharkiv/Yugen Kazhirnov/Razdacha via Reuters
They spoke to NPR Tuesday as they stood in line for humanitarian aid in the heavily damaged downtown Balaklia. They are two of the many residents NPR spoke with during the first press tour of the newly vacated area. Many still seemed genuinely shocked that their city had been liberated.
“The only thing we fear now is that the Russians may return. Indeed, it is hard to believe that this is forever,” says Dotsenko.
Although the physical damage to Balaklia and the surrounding areas is not as great as the destruction left in the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin, the city will still have a lot to clean up.
Utilities that have been cut off for months, such as water, electricity, Internet and cell service, must be restored. Residents need food and other supplies, Russian soldiers stole food from people’s homes, cleaned store shelves and killed animals. It is also necessary to restore several buildings, repair houses and remove abandoned and bombed cars.
There is also the task of estimating the number of dead during the six months of occupation of the territory. Officials say they found the bodies of five Ukrainian civilians in Balaklei, but suspect there are more. At least two of them are people believed to have been shot dead by Russian soldiers while passing through a checkpoint. Their bodies were buried in makeshift graves near the city center and have now been exhumed for further investigation.
“We will try to do everything possible to register all war crimes committed by Russian troops,” the head of the Kharkiv Regional Military Administration, Oleg Sinegubav, told journalists.
This could be a turning point
President Vladimir Zelensky said on Tuesday that Ukraine has regained more than 1,500 square miles of territory this month. Zelensky visited the region on Wednesday.
The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, D.C., says Ukraine has retaken more territory in its latest counteroffensive in less than a week than Russia has managed to capture in all its operations since April.
The Kremlin admitted that it was forced to withdraw its troops from the Kharkiv region, and several deputies of the State Duma of the Russian Federation expressed concern about the situation on the front line, the institute reports. Meanwhile, officials of some Russian-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine urged residents to evacuate.
Seth Jones, senior vice president and director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Ukraine’s recent success is a culmination of things — including forcing the Russians to move many of their troops south.
“Ukrainian forces, in fact, pretended that the priority would be in the south, in areas like Kherson,” he says. “The Russians moved some military forces from the north and east down to the south, and that made it possible for [Ukrainians to] advance to the north and east.”
Analysts say the counteroffensive has taken an administrative toll on Russian troops and that morale is low. Russia would have to move more of its troops to regain lost territory — something it really can’t afford right now because it would leave them vulnerable on other fronts, Jones says.
Officials say about 15% of Kharkiv Oblast is still occupied by Russia, meaning the fighting in places like Balaklia may not be over yet.
“I think it will probably be a tipping point, probably not in a turning point,” he says.
Polina Litvinova participated in the preparation of this report.