Early on Friday, Ukraine said it had recaptured the village of Ruska Lozova, population 5,000, after two months of what one resident called a period of “terrible fear.” The village had been without electricity and water, and some residents said they had spent weeks in cellars while Russia bombed the area. They also said the Russians had forced some Ukrainians to leave and cross into Russian territory.
Villagers were seen embracing Ukrainian soldiers after the siege ended. “We had two nights which were scary as hell … we thought the sky was burning, the whole village was burning,” Svitlana Perepilitsa, 23, told Agence France-Presse.
Ruska Lozova is the latest of several towns and villages caught in the crossfire near Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. Russian forces have turned their attention to Kharkiv and smaller cities and towns across the east after failing to hold territory in other parts of the country.
“They know that they must try and show some kind of success to their obsessive leaders in the Kremlin,” Oleksandr Gorgan, a deputy commander in the Ukrainian army, told Grid.
Gorgan commands a battalion of Ukrainian soldiers near Kharkiv. He spoke to us during a brief visit to Kyiv, in between deployments. Until the Russian invasion in February, Gorgan was a local politician in the Kyiv district administration; he is now an officer on the front lines. For Gorgan, the war has already extracted a heavy personal toll: His brother and several fellow soldiers have been killed in the fighting.
But as Russia steps up its eastern offensive — “they are trying to occupy even the smallest villages,” Gorgan said — he expressed a determination to continue fighting. “The war has made me appreciate the life I had before,” he said. “I remember being bored at times, of having the feeling of being stuck in the same kinds of things. But now I am ashamed about that. It was actually a valuable time. That is why I have the fighting spirit I have. The way my life was — I want it back.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: Over the past few weeks, as Russia has concentrated its attacks in eastern Ukraine, you have been deployed there, along with your unit. What can you tell us about the conflict unfolding in the east of your country, as you head back?
Oleksandr Gorgan: I’ve been on the move in Kharkiv [region], near a town called Izyum. In many ways, it is one of the hottest points in terms of the fighting on the front lines. And I have also been in contact with fellow soldiers stationed in other areas in eastern Ukraine. Based on what I have experienced and seen, and what others have told me, it is clear to me that we are in the decisive phase of the war.
The Russian army has failed in its goals in other parts of Ukraine. So in the east, they know that they must try and show some kind of success to their obsessive leaders in the Kremlin. This is particularly true as we near May 9, which Russians celebrate as “Victory Day.” So what we can see is that they are concentrating their forces and all their weaponry around the borders and front lines in eastern Ukraine. And because they are facing pressure to show some kind of victory, they are trying to occupy even the smallest villages.
This is very different from our strategy. We are focused on pushing them back completely and doing whatever we can to protect civilians in the line of fire. We are not going village by village like they are. We have an overall goal. They do not. Their focus is clearly on trying to hold on to any little portion of territory. In this they also do not have any regard for civilians. That is what we are seeing in the east. It is a desperate offensive in many ways by the Russians.
There is another sign of desperation. We have intercepted communications that show frustration as Russian soldiers refuse to fight on. In one case, our security service intercepted a conversation in which a Russian officer admits to shooting soldiers to force others to fight. It shows you the state of the Russian offensive and the big difference between their attitude and ours.
G: You’ve been involved in the war from the very beginning. Have you noticed any changes in the Russian advance? Not so much in terms of where they are focusing, which we have talked about, but how they are fighting — tactics and strategy?
OG: It has changed a lot. At the start, the Russian army was moving in long columns. They looked brave and determined. They believed, like so many other people, that they had the advantage. This led to them neglecting some basic security precautions. They did not engage a lot of reconnaissance as they moved their columns into Ukraine. They did not have enough reinforcements in terms of transport and so on. They did not even bother to provide enough cover for these long columns of soldiers. They were too confident.
That provided an opening for us. We were able to hit them easily. We moved in small groups. We used anti-tank weapons. We were more flexible in our approach.
Their main focus now is on the Donbas region where they are doing everything they can to prolong the conflict. This is because they need time to replenish their resources. Our assessment is that they want to prolong this until the autumn at least to give themselves time to fix their problems with weaponry and personnel and to rebuild their arsenals. We are determined to stop that from happening.
One way we are doing this is by making sure that they are unable to take a break in the conflict. We have been receiving new, more powerful weapons. That has helped us keep the pressure on Russia. What has been important is that we have received weapons from our partners that allow us to operate from a longer range.
It isn’t a secret that our weakness is in the air — with air defense. We have had problems with defending against Russian cruise missiles. We are getting more support there as well, but we are waiting for more anti-aircraft weaponry to fill this gap in our defense.
We are stronger in close combat situations right now. But we need both — the ability to fight on the ground and also hit them in the sky.
This is also important because they have been using their missiles, often launched from warships around Crimea, to increasingly target our logistics infrastructure. Things like bridges and railway junctions. We need the ability to hit back effectively.
G: What are you anticipating over the next few weeks, as the war moves into its third month?
OG: We know that the Russian offensive will be strong throughout May in the east. We can already see that. They are not going to try and retake territory in other parts of the country based on what we have seen. But they will keep a close focus on the east and in particular on securing control of territory connecting Crimea to eastern Ukraine.
For us that means also concentrating our resources. We have just completed a third wave of mobilization there with around 10 new divisions. We also have new weapons coming into the area to fight them in places like Kherson. But they are also struggling. In Kherson, they are in need of water supplies. But they will not withdraw. We can also see that. Not yet.
What they are doing instead is stepping up their shelling fire and engaging in street fights wherever they can. It’s like I said earlier: a strategy to hold on to whatever they can right now.
G: What about in other parts of Ukraine — could you talk about other specific threats that you are particularly mindful of right now, even as the focus is on the fighting in the eastern part of the country?
OG: The great new threat is on the other side — in the Russian enclave of Transnistria, the Moldovan region under Russian influence, and threat of ammunition coming in from there. We need to make sure that that border is secured. Moldova itself should seek military help from its partners in my view. That is a big threat and a big priority for us to make sure that Russians cannot use Transnistria for their invasion of Ukraine. It requires us to be vigilant on the west at the same time as we fight the new Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine.
G: What about personally — could you speak to us about what the war has been like for you so far, in terms of your own experiences and the experience of your family?
OG: It has been bad emotionally. There is no doubt. I have been living through great pain like the rest of the country. I have lost colleagues. I’ve lost my brother. Their lives have been lost for what is a very stupid reason. It is tragic, all this pain.
But although it has been hard, I must also tell you that my fighting spirit is very high. The war has made me appreciate the life I had before. I remember being bored at times, of having the feeling of being stuck in the same kinds of things. But now I am ashamed about that. It was actually a valuable time. That is why I have the fighting spirit I have. The way my life was — I want it back. It gives me enormous strength and motivation to go on and fight.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.