Under Relentless Russian Assault, Ukraine Adopts a Defensive Crouch

At a high point for Ukraine in its war against Russia, when its army was sweeping Russian forces from the country’s northeast, a small-town police chief proudly hung a Ukrainian flag on his newly liberated city hall.

A year and a half later, the policeman, Oleksiy Kharkivskyi, was dashing into the burning ruins of the same town, Vovchansk, last week to evacuate its few remaining residents as Russian forces closed in.

“Everywhere they come is just razed to the ground,” Mr. Kharkivskyi said of the advance of the Russian troops, who have returned to the region with a scorched-earth ferocity, setting in motion one of the largest displacements of people since the first months of the war.

Russian troops punched across the border between Russia and Ukraine this month and pushed toward Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, which has a population of about a million people. Military analysts say Russia lacks the troops to capture the city but could advance to within artillery range, touching off a larger flow of refugees.

Militarily, the incursion seems intended to stretch Ukraine’s already thin and underequipped forces by diverting troops from the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, still seen as the likely target of a Russian offensive this summer. It has also had the destabilizing effect of sending thousands of dismayed, disheartened people from the border region deeper into Ukraine.

After more than a week of fierce fighting, the Ukrainian Army has fallen back to more heavily fortified positions about five miles from the border, which they have held now for several days. Even more formidable positions — trenches, concrete tank traps and bunkers — lie farther to the rear.

Regional officials say the attack has so far displaced about 8,000 people, and a frantic effort is underway to evacuate stragglers, mostly older people, from towns and villages in the path of the Russian advance.

Many have fled villages that lay in front of the defensive lines, an area given over to skirmishing and ambushes, and heavily bombarded by Russian artillery.

While hardly ideal as a strategy — and accounts from commanders and soldiers suggest Ukraine executed it with some mishaps — the tactic of defending while retreating in small steps allows a weaker force to inflict heavy casualties on attackers. Those on the offensive must storm row after row of positions as they move forward, continually breaking cover and exposing themselves to artillery.

Ukraine, with insufficient troops as a mobilization effort stalled for months and short on ammunition as the U.S. Congress delayed a spending bill, has used the strategy out of necessity after Russian forces took the city of Avdiivka in February.

It comes, of course, at a cost of slices of territory — and of misfortune for those living on the wrong side of the fortifications the Ukrainians will probably fall back on.

Vasily Holoborodko, 65, a retired airplane mechanic, had remained on his farm even as he watched soldiers build tank traps and trenches on the wrong side of his property — away from the Russian border.

When the attack came, he was soon caught in the fighting. Mr. Holoborodko made a dash for safety on Thursday, passing burning houses and blown-up tanks — and the more robust defensive lines.

“We barely got out,” he said. In his rush to flee, he left behind his chickens, his cat and his dog “to whatever God will give them.”

The villages dotted around pine forests north of Kharkiv are picturesque jumbles of brightly painted one-story homes, with gardens freshly planted. The fighting retreat, however militarily sound, has meant surrendering some to ruin.

“The tactics of the Russians have changed radically compared to 2022,” said Capt. Petro Levkovskiy, chief of staff of the operational battalion of Ukraine’s 13th Brigade, referring to the invasion that February. At that time, he noted, “They came in columns, marching to Kharkiv, because they thought they would be welcomed.” Russia occupied the border area until September 2022.

This month, heavy artillery bombardments from across the border in Russia announced the latest attack. “They fire artillery at long distances, destroy everything, then small groups assault, but in large numbers, from different directions,” Captain Levkovskiy said.

On a drive north toward the border from Kharkiv last week, pickup trucks and armored vehicles sped in the same direction, while cars overstuffed with people, bags of clothes and pet carriers raced south.

Wildfires burned through the pines, and smoke rose from burning villages farther north.

Sprays of dirt from fresh artillery strikes spattered the road. The window for evacuating civilians from areas in front of Ukraine’s fortifications is closing.

Scenes of anguish unfolded as people left homes, and sometimes pets, at a moment’s notice.

When an evacuation team arrived at his home in Bilyi Kolodyaz, Pavel Nelup, 30, quickly threw a duffel bag into the car and clambered in as artillery rumbled nearby.

“It’s scarier this time” he said of the latest Russian attacks. “Now we understand they won’t leave anybody alive.”

His German shepherd, left behind for lack of space, stared balefully at him from a gap under the fence, whimpering.

A neighbor, Elena Konovalova, 58, emerged to say goodbye to Mr. Nelup. “My precious, see you later,” she said. “You will be all right.”

Vitaly Kylchik, a chaplain with the 110th Territorial Defense Brigade helping with evacuations, urged her to leave soon, too.

“Don’t sit and wait like the people in Vovchansk,” he said of the town to the north, from where plumes of black smoke were rising. The city hall where the flag was proudly hung after liberation is now a ruin, residents said.

Daria Sorokoletova 40, a resident of Vovchansk, fled on Wednesday. Just as she left her home, an artillery shell hit it, blowing it to smithereens.

“There is nothing there,” she said. “There is nowhere to go back to.”

Even as its citizens are forced to evacuate, the Ukrainian government has defended the strategy of retreating to the defensive lines. Russia has advanced over about 50 square miles and captured about a dozen villages, many now in rubble.

On Friday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said the Russian offensive had reached but not crossed a first line of defenses, beyond those villages.

“The first line is not the border,” Mr. Zelensky said. “It is impossible to build there because our people were getting killed” by artillery fire as they dug fortifications and laid mines, an effort that began in 2022 but intensified in recent months.

A guessing game for the generals awaits. How far Russia advances depends on how many soldiers both sides commit. For Ukraine, that calculation means moving defenders from other potential sites of attack.

“War is interactive,” Johan Norberg, a senior military analyst at Sweden’s Defense Research Agency, said in a telephone interview. “What the Ukrainians do or don’t do is just as important as what the Russians do.” Capturing the city of Kharkiv, he said, would require Russia to commit “not just a few thousand but hundreds of thousands” of soldiers.

Residents have less assurances. After Ukraine reclaimed their village, Staryi Saltiv, in 2022, Mykhaylo Voinov, 63, and his wife, Olena Voinova, 54, repaired the roof, plugged shrapnel damage and replaced broken windows. In a lovingly manicured backyard, bird song mixed with the rumble of artillery.

“We live our life to the fullest, even knowing at any time we might have to pack and leave,” Ms. Voinova said. “Of course it’s very hard, but this is our land, we are ready to rebuild again and again.”

In one sign of the exodus, Elena Bubenko, 59, who takes in stray dogs and pets that her neighbors placed in her care before fleeing, is now caring for 116 dogs in the village of Tsykuni, north of Kharkiv.

If Ukrainian troops need to fall back beyond her village, she said, she would understand and just hoped to evacuate the animals in time.

“They should defend their own lives,” not the villages, she said. “Otherwise, who will be left to fight for us?”

Evelina Ryabko contributed reporting from the Kharkiv region.

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