In bloodied frontline town, Ukrainian forces push Russians back

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
A damaged home Wednesday bears the scars of fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in the frontline town of Moshchun, 20 miles northwest of the capital, Kyiv.

MOSHCHUN, Ukraine – Sgt. Anton Kolumbet, his black rifle slung over his shoulder, walked along a damp road, past flattened houses and the burned carcasses of cars. With a steady beat, artillery shells thundered in the woods, a symphony of war the 35-year-old soldier embraced with a zeal he couldn’t have imagined five weeks ago.

He walked past spent ammunition rounds that glistened in the rain and past other detritus of the violent battles fought in this once-peaceful village that is now an important frontline in Ukraine’s war with Russia. Decomposing corpses of Russian soldiers and the bodies of at least two civilian men who appeared to have been shot lay scattered about.

A half-mile down the road was a cluster of trees. The Russians were on the other side, about a mile away.

“It’s safe. It is our artillery,” said Kolumbet, laughing as more booms thundered through the shattered and deserted hamlet on Tuesday. He said the Ukrainians were shelling the nearby airport in Hostomel. Russian forces had hoped to use that airfield in their assault on Kyiv, 20 miles to the southeast, but now they were stalled there in the middle of a bloody and grinding artillery fight.

In the second month of war, Ukraine’s frontline soldiers are more confident than they had expected to be when Russian forces invaded. In areas north of the capital, the Russian advance has been stopped, while in Moshchun and other areas, Ukrainian forces have mounted counteroffensives with American-made weapons such as the Javelin antitank missiles and pushed the invaders out of some towns and villages. Brutal clashes, mostly composed of tit-for-tat aerial bombardments, still take place daily, underscoring the war’s unpredictable turns.

But for now a military stalemate continues, which Ukrainian forces consider a major victory over Russia, whose initial objective was to take over the capital within days. So it was perhaps understandable that Moscow’s pledge on Wednesday to “drastically reduce attacks” on Kyiv was greeted with derision among Ukrainian soldiers in Moshchun.

“They agree to stop attacking Kyiv because they don’t have enough soldiers to do that, because we killed most of them,” said Kolumbet. “It’s like the fourth round, you are almost beaten to death and you just say ‘Let’s stop fighting.'”

“Everyone understands that the Russians’ main goal was the occupation of the capital,” he added. “Now, they are trying to put on what we call ‘a nice face with bad cards.’ … You can see that the fighting here was very intense. But we won, and they retreated.”

A rare visit by journalists to this countryside village offered a glimpse of the brutality being inflicted in rural towns and villages outside Ukraine’s cities, where much of the war has unfolded. While the visit highlighted the weaponry, tactics and sheer resilience of the Ukrainian forces in preventing Russia’s military from pushing into the capital, it also underscored the fragility of the current military landscape and the war’s uncertain future.

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
In Moshchun, Sgt. Anton Kolumbet of the Ukrainian army holds a Russian soldier’s flak jacket with a bloodstained bandage.

On Wednesday, a day after the Russian pledge to reduce hostilities around Kyiv, their forces bombarded Moshchun and its surrounding forest with artillery and mortars, forcing a Washington Post photographer and translator to take cover in a bunker. Ukrainian authorities and residents said the attacks continued overnight and through Wednesday morning in the embattled city of Chernihiv and in or near other parts of Kyiv.

Kolumbet, wearing camouflage, spoke into his walkie-talkie to a comrade in the Ukrainian army’s 72nd Mechanized Brigade, Task Force Coyote.

“I am listening, proceed,” said the voice on the other end.

“We will come visit you soon,” said Kolumbet.

“We are waiting,” the voice replied.

Kolumbet’s mission on this day was mundane, yet key to the battle against the Russians: He was carrying batteries to use in his fighters’ radios, night-vision goggles, anything that needed power in a village with no working electricity.

Along the road, the destroyed houses revealed the village’s affluence. Some were mansions nestled behind walls with huge yards with swing sets and slides. An Audi sat in one driveway. In another, a BMW was peppered with shrapnel from a mortar.

“The rich people from Kyiv bought houses to spend their vacations here,” said Kolumbet. “This is a normal post-Soviet village where half of the population are old people who just live here and half the population are young people who bought houses.”

With a prewar population of around 1,500, the village was less than five miles from the airport in Hostomel. On the invasion’s first day, Russian forces landed at the airfield in an attempt to quickly surround and seize the capital and topple the government. The goal was to create an air bridge to funnel in tanks, armored vehicles and other weaponry to push into Kyiv.

In their way was Moshchun.

Six days into the invasion, the Russians captured the village and an armored column pressed further toward the northern suburbs of the capital. But the Ukrainians mounted a strong resistance, including shooting down several Russian helicopters, stalling the Russian offensive using guerrilla tactics.

The Russians remained inside Moshchun for nearly two weeks, according to Ukrainian troops at the village this week. Most residents fled, then the Russians were pushed out. But gruesome hints of their invading soldiers’ presence are still visible today in the largely abandoned village.

In one house, the corpse of a Russian fighter lay on a kitchen table. He appeared to have been injured in the leg and groin and apparently had been in the middle of surgery when he died, suggesting Russian forces had transformed the house into an emergency medical clinic.

In other corners of the village, there were at least 10 Russian corpses, most of their bodies intact, suggesting they had been killed in street-by-street fighting or possibly shrapnel from a mortar. Fleeing Russians appeared to have left behind gear, including a drenched, olive-green backpack that was filled with bullets. In one trench, Ukrainian soldiers found several large belts of unused Russian ammunition.

The few residents who stayed seemed shocked. Over two visits to the village, Post reporters saw only two civilian residents. One was Ivan Batsiura, 68, the owner of a small farm where he raised chickens and goats, who remained with his wife.

“We don’t want to leave our house,” said Batsiura, who had a mustache, glasses and a gray hat. He refused to speak about what happened inside the village and appeared still traumatized.

He walked into his house and came out with a framed photo of himself and his granddaughter, Dasha. He gave a Post translator a phone number for his daughter and son-in-law. He had not spoken to them since his birthday, on Feb. 27 – two days before the Russians arrived. There had been no cell reception, and he was cut off from the world.

“Can you call him to check if they are still alive?” said Batsiura, clutching the photo.

Kolumbet spotted an empty casing of a Russian-made rocket-propelled grenade lying on the ground. He knelt down to inspect it. It was a newer model, he said, and then guessed that the Russian who used it had probably been killed by his forces.

“And I can show you the guys who did it,” said Kolumbet, his voice rising excitedly. “They are over there.”

Steps away was a Ukrainian military position inside a large house. Yevgen Shkor entered the compound, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher strapped across his back. He initially didn’t want to fight, he said, but the circumstances convinced him.

“[I’m] provoked by seeing dead people who have nothing to do with this war,” said Shkor, a lean, muscular father of a teenager. “It provokes and somehow triggers this hatred and urge to destroy the Russians who came here. The more you see it, the more hate you feel and the more you want to kill them. I feel no pity for them whatsoever.”

Two weeks ago, intense clashes erupted in the village, as Ukrainian forces sought to push the Russians out. The Ukrainians first pounded the Russian forces with artillery and later deployed special forces units who battled the Russians street by street, said Vitaly Spys, 43, the commander of the position.

As in other battles around Kyiv, the Ukrainians used guerrilla war tactics, firing from trenches and ambushing the Russian forces who had little knowledge of the terrain, said Spys and other soldiers. Two things were different from other battles, they said. The special forces units engaged in the urban war were armed with American-made weaponry, especially Javelins.

“The tactical groups fighting on the streets had antitank missiles and ammunition from the United States,” said Spys. “They crashed enemy drones with the Javelins.”

Second, the Ukrainians blew up a dam, which flooded the river passing by the village. That also destroyed several pontoon bridges that the Russians were using to resupply their forces inside Moshchun and send in reinforcements, Spys and Kolumbet said in separate interviews. As a result, the Russian forces inside Moshchun were cut off from their forces on the other side, and they were eventually driven back across the river. Some of their armored vehicles sank in the water, said the Ukrainian soldiers.

“The explosion of the dam helped us,” said Spys. “At this time, the river is flooded and there’s not a chance of the [Russians] regaining this territory from this side through the river.”

But the Russians are still trying to retake Moshchun. They have planted mines and booby traps in the surrounding forests, and their snipers shoot at Ukrainians working to remove the mines, said Spys. Russian helicopters fly in and pound their positions every day, including earlier Tuesday morning, he said. The Russian artillery fire from Hostomel airfield seems to never end.

“We control the situation here, but there is constant fire from the enemy,” said soldier Oleksi Bevsluk, 35. “So we respond to them.”

Spys was more cautious in his assessment. “We are not sure we have 100 percent control,” he said, noting that there were still Russian “diversion groups” around the village, firing at this troops.

And the Russians still controlled the area on the other side of the river.

None of the Ukrainian soldiers interviewed in Moshchun trust Russia’s pledge to reduce its attacks. They are all on alert for more Russian bombardments – and the possibility that Moscow is making that pledge to allow more time to bring more reinforcements, military equipment and supplies through neighboring Belarus. The war, they say, is far from over.

“I don’t believe in any negotiations with Russia, ever,” said Kolumbet. “The only language that Russia understands is the language of force.”

On Wednesday, a Post reporter called the number Ivan Batsiura provided for his son-in-law, Mykhailo Danilchenko. He fled the battered city of Irpin, on Kyiv’s edges, with his family to the western city of Lviv. He said Batsiura’s daughter and granddaughter were both alive and safe.

They had been worried about Batsiura and his wife. Two weeks earlier, they had seen a video posted on social media of a Russian tank blown up in front of the couple’s yard, said Danilchenko.

“We are so grateful to God that he’s alive and well,” he said.