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Captain Andriy Malakhov and his men crept forward through the forests south of the city of Balakliya. They knew that just ahead was the enemy’s first line of defence in the Kharkiv region, a network of trenches and fortifications they had heard the Russians refer to as “Moskva,” or “Moscow,” in intercepted walkie-talkie chatter.
Capt. Malakhov and the 30 troops following him understood, too, that they were outnumbered by the 100 or so Russian soldiers guarding the line, who also had dug-in tanks and artillery. But at dawn on Sept. 7, he and his battalion – a special-operations unit known as Wild Steppe that reports directly to General Valery Zaluzhny, the commander of Ukraine’s Armed Forces – attacked anyway.
The objective was not to overwhelm the enemy. It was a diversion – and it worked.
As Russian troops defending Balakliya redeployed south to reinforce Moskva, the main Ukrainian assault, which had begun its advance a day earlier, punched through the thinned-out Russian lines north of the town.
“They thought we were the main threat, but it was only our battalion,” Capt. Malakhov said in an interview with The Globe and Mail in a Kharkiv hospital, where he is recovering from injuries he sustained in the fighting.
With the Ukrainian military barring media from the newly liberated areas, Capt. Malakhov’s eyewitness account is one of the first to emerge of a counteroffensive that has seen Ukraine retake more than 3,000 square kilometres of territory, reshaping the six-month-old war here.
By the end of Sept. 7, Balakliya – a city of 20,000 that had been under Russian control since March – was back in Ukrainian hands. And the Wild Steppe battalion had crossed the strategically important Siverskiy Donets river, firing on Russian troops as they staged a chaotic retreat.
The fall of Balakliya precipitated a wider collapse of the Russian front line, allowing Ukrainian troops to capture the strategic railway hub of Kupyansk, as well as the city of Izyum, which had been the centre of Russian military operations in the region. By Monday, Ukrainian troops were in control of almost the entire Kharkiv region.
Russia, meanwhile, for a second straight day retaliated by striking at civilian infrastructure in Kharkiv and other cities. Much of Kharkiv was blacked out Monday – power had been briefly restored after a Sunday missile strike on the city’s electrical grid – and Mayor Ihor Terehov wrote on his Telegram channel that Russian forces had also targeted the water supply to Ukraine’s second-largest city, which had a prewar population of 1.4 million.
Capt. Malakhov credited the bait-and-switch tactics to Gen. Zaluzhny, whom he has known for years. He said the top general seemed to have convinced President Volodymyr Zelensky that a counterattack had a better chance of succeeding in the forests and swamps of Kharkiv – where special-operations units can have an outsized impact – rather than on the open plains of Kherson, where Russia’s artillery advantage would be hard to overcome.
The Kharkiv counteroffensive, which appears to have caught Russian forces almost completely unprepared, was more than a month in the making.
The Wild Steppe battalion had been fighting in the Kherson region until the start of August, when they were redeployed to Kharkiv on direct orders from Gen. Zaluzhny. On Aug. 6, they started laying the groundwork for what was to come with an attack on the village of Bairak, just south of Balakliya. They failed to take Bairak but left behind several undercover saboteurs who waited until the September offensive was under way to blow up a bridge in the village and destroy a key Russian supply line.
After the Bairak skirmish – in which, Capt. Malakhov said, both sides sustained significant casualties – the Ukrainians waited and built up their presence in the region while Russia continued to move forces south from Kharkiv to bolster the Kherson front.
Finally, last Wednesday morning, the real counterattack began. At first, the Russian troops – members of the 150th Rifle Division, as well as marines from the 1st Baltic Sea Fleet – put up a fierce defence of the Moskva line. Then, likely realizing they were being outflanked, they suddenly withdrew.
By the time the Wild Steppe fighters – all of them veterans of the eight-year war in the Donbas region, which preceded Russia’s full-blown invasion this year – reached Moskva, it was deserted. The Russians had withdrawn in an orderly fashion, taking their dead and injured with them. That wasn’t the case by the time the Ukrainians overtook the second trench line, which the Russians had nicknamed “Peter,” after St. Petersburg.
“When we started to properly advance, they started to leave their bodies behind,” Capt. Malakhov said, calling one of his men into his hospital room to show The Globe photos of dead Russian soldiers that he had taken with his iPhone.
As the Russians realized the precariousness of their position, they started to flee in different directions. Some held together with their units, fighting as they withdrew southeast toward the adjacent Luhansk region. Others deserted their equipment, took off their uniforms and donned civilian clothing in an attempt to evade capture, Capt. Malakhov said.
His iPhone has photos of armoured vehicles, ammunition and uniforms left behind by fleeing Russian forces, as well as a video of his men taking down the red Soviet-era banner of the 150th Rifle Division from the village of Nova Husarivka. They later raised the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag, a moment that brought joy to Capt. Malakhov and his men.
A few of the escaping Russians dove into the nearby Siverskiy Donets and tried to swim to safety. The Wild Steppe fighters crossed the river in inflatable boats and pursued them to a nearby Young Pioneers camp – a remnant from the days when both Ukraine and Russia were part of the Soviet Union – that the Russians were using a base.
A ferocious firefight ensued, in which Capt. Malakhov was struck three times by machine-gun fire. Two bullets tore through his left leg, another slammed into his hip.
He fell, unable to carry on, but his unit pushed forward and is still part of the ongoing counteroffensive, which on Monday continued to liberate towns and villages in the Kharkiv region. Despite his injury, Capt. Malakhov, a 46-year-old father of two, said he takes pride in leading his men from the front.
“If you’re asking about motivation, [Russian] commanders never go to the front line. … If I’m leading the attack, my men will follow me,” he said, in evident discomfort a day after an operation to remove the bullet from his hip.
Lieutenant Taras Berezovets, a press officer for another Ukrainian special-operations unit that took part in the offensive, confirmed that the Wild Steppe fighters had liberated three villages – and that Capt. Malakhov, whose nom de guerre is “Tuman,” or “Fog,” had led the assault himself.
“He was leading the attacks at least twice,” Lt. Berezovets said. “He was the first to jump into the trenches – and he was wounded the next day after taking control over the Moskva fortified position. … Tuman will get a nomination for the Hero of Ukraine.”
The fact that a top commander had to wait five days for an operation – “I had to wait until they could find a table to operate on” – speaks to the number of Ukrainian troops wounded in the counteroffensive to liberate the Kharkiv region. But Capt. Malakhov said morale remains high, which is a key difference between his men and the Russians who fled their posts.
“Their guys were afraid. Our guys have nothing to be afraid of. When we have someone wounded or killed in action, we continue our assault. This is our land. Our people are ready to die for it.”