Amid Ukraine’s startling gains, liberated villages describe Russian troops dropping rifles and fleeing

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Ukrainian police investigators and war crime prosecutor for the Kharkiv Oblast region as they work to recover the bodies of two men in the liberated village of Zaliznychne, Ukraine on Sept. 11, 2022.

ZALIZNYCHNE, Ukraine – In the end, the Russians fled any way they could on Friday, on stolen bicycles, disguised as locals, abandoned by their units. Hours after Ukrainian soldiers poured into the area, hundreds of Russian soldiers encamped in this village were gone, leaving behind stunned residents to face the ruins of 28 weeks of occupation.

“They just dropped rifles on the ground,” Olena Matvienko said Sunday as she stood, still disoriented, in a village littered with ammo crates and torched vehicles, including a Russian tank loaded on a flatbed. The first investigators from Kharkiv had just pulled in to collect the bodies of civilians shot by Russians, some that have been lying exposed for months.

“I can’t believe that we went through something like this in the 21st century,” Matvienko said, tears welling.

The hasty flight of Russians from the village was part of a stunning new reality that took the world by surprise over the weekend: The invaders of February are on the run in some parts of Ukraine they seized early in the conflict.

On Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that Russian forces had retreated from the Balakliia and Izyum area in the Kharkiv region, saying a decision was taken to “regroup.”

On Sunday, Ukraine’s commander in chief, Valery Zaluzhny, said Ukrainian forces had retaken more than 3,000 square kilometers (1,864 miles) of territory, a claim that could not be independently verified, adding that they were advancing from the east, south and north.

“Ukrainian forces have penetrated Russian lines to a depth of up to 70 kilometers in some places,” reported the Institute for the Study of War, which closely tracks the conflict. They have captured more territory in the past five days “than Russian forces have captured in all their operations since April,” its campaign assessment posted Sunday said.

The apparent collapse of the Russian forces has caused shock waves in Moscow. The leader of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who sent his own fighters to Ukraine, said if there are not immediate changes in Russia’s conduct of the invasion, “he would have to contact the leadership of the country to explain to them the real situation on the ground.”

The Russian Defense Ministry’s own daily briefing Sunday featured a map showing Russians retreating behind the Oskil river on the outskirts of the Kherson region.

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
A Ukrainian soldier carries away a tank shell in the liberated village of Zaliznychne, Ukraine, on Sept. 11, 2022.

Evidence of the Ukrainian gains continued to emerge Sunday, with images of Ukrainian soldiers raising a flag in central Izyum, after it was abandoned by Russian forces, and similar images from other towns and villages such as Kindrashivka, Chkalovske and Velyki Komyshuvakha.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declined to elaborate on his army’s next moves, except to say in a CNN interview, “We will not be standing still. We will be slowly, gradually moving forward.”

Ukrainians emerged into the string of just-liberated villages southeast of Kharkiv hailing the end of their ordeal, and wondering whether it is truly over. “Only God knows if they will be back,” said Tamara Kozinska, 75, whose husband was killed by a mortar blast soon after the Russians arrived.

It is not over by any means, military experts warned. Russia still holds about a fifth of Ukraine and continued heavy shelling over the weekend across several regions. And nothing guarantees that Ukraine can keep recaptured areas secure. “A counteroffensive liberates territory and after that you have to control it and be ready to defend it,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov cautioned in an interview with the Financial Times.

But as Ukrainian soldiers continued Sunday to sweep deeper into territory that had been held by Russia, more of them were willing to see the campaign as a possible turning point.

In Zaliznychne, a tiny agricultural village 37 miles east of Kharkiv, residents were feeling their way back to normality Sunday, sleeping in bedrooms rather than basements for first the first time in months and trying to make contact with family on the outside.

Kozinska hasn’t seen her daughter since February – even though she lives 12 miles away – but had just received word that she will come to pick her up as soon as officials open access to the village, just as the weather turns cold.

“I have been so scared about winter,” said the woman with lung problems, clutching a just-distributed paper giving her a number to call if she finds a land mine. “We have no power and it’s hard for me to collect firewood.”

The first Russian soldiers who set up in the village, turning the sawmill into their base and launching rocket attacks at Ukrainian troops in the next town, had at first not harassed the residents, she said. When they shot pigs on an abandoned farm, they sometimes let residents butcher some of the meat.

But as the occupation ground on, with the Russians rotating out every month, the troops became more aggressive. One of them asked to borrow Kozinska’s phone.

“I gave it to him so he could call his mother, but he took my SIM card,” she said.

One of the medics treated Halyna Noskova’s back after she was hit by mortar shrapnel in her front yard in June. Her 87-year mother pulled out the metal shard. “It was still hot,” she said. The Russian bandaged her up.

“They helped me, but I’m glad we are liberated,” said Noskova, 66.

The residents, all of whom are Russian speaking in this region adjacent to the Russian border, described treatment generally more humane than that experienced by occupied communities farther to the west. The discovery of more than 450 bodies in Bucha, near Kyiv – many showing signs of torture – set off international outrage over atrocities.

“They were not monsters, they were kids,” said Matvienko, who once asked Russian troops to move the tank they parked in front of her house. “I asked what they wanted from us and they said, ‘We can either be here or we can be in jail.’ “

Others told the villagers they weren’t there to fight Ukraine, but to “protect us from America.”

The Russians’ biggest rule for residents was to get inside by 6 p.m. and stay there, quiet and in the dark, several said. Violating that order could be fatal, as two men on the street learned early on. The friends were drinking and had a light on, said Maria Grygorova, who lives in the attached house next door. The next morning she found them on the floor.

“Konstiantyn had two bullet holes in his head,” she said.

She and two friends buried them in the side yard. The same two friends dug them up Sunday, with Ukrainian war crimes investigators looking on.

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Maria Grygorova, 63, carrying blankets for the bodies, as police investigators, medical examiners and the Kharkiv Oblast war crimes prosecutor worked to exhumed the bodies of her two neighbors that were killed by Russian soldiers in Zaliznychne, Ukraine on Sept. 11, 2022.

The team from Kharkiv collected two other bodies during their visit, including a security guard whose remains have been rotting on the floor of a gravel elevator at an asphalt plant for months, even as the Russians used it as a sniper tower. One investigator vomited over a guardrail repeatedly as officers collected the remains.

“We’re here looking into war crimes,” said Serhii Bolvinov, chief investigator of the Kharkiv Regional Police, as his crew waited on demining techs to clear one area of explosives before they could recover some of the bodies.

The residents were scared of the Russians, several village residents said. But they almost pitied them in their scramble to escape the recent Ukrainian onslaught.

Half of the soldiers fled in their vehicles in the first hours of the offensive, they said. Those stranded grew desperate. Some residents overheard their radio pleas to unit commanders for someone to come get them.

“They said, ‘You’re on your own,’ ” Matvienko recounted. “They came into our houses to take clothes so the drones wouldn’t see them in uniforms. They took our bicycles. Two of them pointed guns at my ex-husband until he handed them his car keys.”

Buoyant Ukrainian officials said they would no longer negotiate a peace deal that would let Russia keep an occupying presence in any territory, even in Crimea and part of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions controlled by Russia or Russian-backed separatists for years.

“The point of no return has passed,” Reznikov, the defense minister, said at the Yalta European Strategy summit in Kyiv on Saturday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday seemed to backtrack on his previous assertion that the time wasn’t right for peace negotiations, as Russia was preparing to stage a round of sham referendums meant to annex occupied territories.

“We are not against the talks; we are not refusing the talks,” Lavrov said on the state TV program, “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin.” Rather, “Those who refuse should understand that the longer they delay this process, the more difficult it will be to negotiate.”