Ukraine steps up calls for evacuation of northeast town under relentless Russian shelling
By Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Carlotta Gall and Oleksandr Chubko
Months after Russian soldiers were driven out of Kupiansk, Ukrainian authorities are stepping up efforts to evacuate civilians from the town in the Kharkiv region of northeast Ukraine amid relentless Russian shelling.
Ukrainian troops routed Russian forces from much of the Kharkiv region when they mounted a rapid counteroffensive in September that ended months of occupation and helped shift the momentum of the conflict in Ukraine’s favor.
But since then, Moscow’s forces have made it impossible for Ukraine to restore everyday life in the reclaimed areas. Russian troops have continued to pound parts of the region close to front lines, including Kupiansk, with artillery.
Aside from the impact on civilians, the attacks prevent Ukraine from redeploying troops stationed in those areas to other parts of the battlefield, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a research organization based in Washington.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said Sunday that its forces had hit Ukrainian military positions around Kupiansk, and local Ukrainian officials on Sunday said there had been shelling in the area.
Oleh Syniehubov, the head of the Ukrainian regional military administration, had said Saturday that Kupiansk was experiencing the “hottest” fighting in the region and urged any remaining residents to leave.
“Enemy forces are relentlessly trying to attack the positions of our forces. That’s why we announced mandatory evacuation,” Syniehubov said on national television, adding that local authorities and volunteer groups were trying to move people to safer locations elsewhere in the region.
The streets of Kupiansk were largely deserted Friday when a reporting team from The New York Times visited, and the damage from recent Russian artillery strikes was visible. Some buildings that had been intact when Ukrainian forces recaptured the town in September were now scarred by explosions. Houses and shops were boarded up, and a few people were getting onto a bus to Kharkiv.
A kiosk on the main street was reduced to a mangled piece of metal, and the ground in front of the hospital was strewn with rubble and shattered windows. A huge hole gaped wide in a building that had been used as a temporary headquarters by the city’s mayor. Two deep craters in front indicated the building had been struck by missiles. Next door, a heavily sandbagged building that had been used as a temporary police station was abandoned.
Many Ukrainians who live close to the country’s front lines have fled fighting but others have defied evacuation calls from officials despite the danger. In many places, those who have chosen to remain are elderly and in poor health. Others have said they were worried about economic insecurity if they were to relocate.
The heaviest fighting in recent weeks has been near the city of Bakhmut, which is around 80 miles southeast of Kupiansk. But Ukrainian authorities have for days been reporting intensified shelling in the Kharkiv region, as well as farther south.
In an overnight address, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine named the Kharkiv region as one of several places experiencing “brutal” attacks “every day, every night.”
“In less than 2 1/2 months, over 40 enemy missiles have already struck Kharkiv,” he said, speaking of the city of Kharkiv, the regional capital, which Russian forces tried and failed to capture near the start of their full-scale invasion of the country last year.
Zelenskyy said Russia was using all sorts of weapons — “missiles and artillery, drones and mortars” — with a singular goal: “To destroy life and leave nothing human.”
He also called out the cities of the Donbas region, which he said “Russia simply wants to burn.”
The focal point of Moscow’s push to capture the entire Donbas region of eastern Ukraine has been around the embattled city of Bakhmut, where Russian forces have in recent weeks eked out advances. Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said on national television Saturday that fighting was continuing on the outskirts of the city as well as on some of its streets.
On the eastern front, Russia continued attacking positions near Bakhmut and other parts of eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military said in its morning update Sunday. Shelling near the town of Avdiivka had killed three civilians in recent days, according to Vitaliy Barabash, the head of the town’s military administration. He said on television that villages were “being erased” by Russian fire.
Elsewhere, Russian attacks in southern Ukraine’s Kherson region killed at least three civilians and wounded three others Saturday, according to Ukrainian officials. Oleksandr Prokudin, the head of the regional military administration, said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that Russia had fired 156 shells over the past day on the region. Russian strikes on the southern city of Zaporizhzhia also damaged an industrial facility and gas line.
“Russian shelling took the lives of people in Kherson who simply went to a store to buy groceries,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address. “In Zaporizhzhia, a Russian missile hit the city’s life support facility,” he added, without providing details.
Ukrainian officials and military analysts have suggested that the Zaporizhzhia region could be the focus of a long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive in the coming weeks as part of an attempt by Ukraine’s forces to advance on the Russian-held port city of Melitopol.
Anticipating such a move, “Russian forces continue to establish fortifications in Zaporizhzhia,” according to the Institute for the Study of War, which it said was likely an attempt to better secure highways leading into Tokmak, a logistics hub near Melitopol.
Capturing territory around Melitopol could allow Ukrainian forces to sever a Russian line of control that extends from the Crimean Peninsula to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.