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Ukrainian soldiers' view on counteroffensive could inform efforts to dislodge Russia

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In Ukraine, there have been reports that Russian military lines quickly collapsed during this month's counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region. But Ukrainian soldiers who were there say the Russians were well dug in and well equipped and put up significant resistance. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that their perspective on the counteroffensive in Kharkiv could offer insight into the efforts to push back Russian forces elsewhere in Ukraine.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: A Ukrainian soldier from a territorial defense unit is walking through the blown-apart village of Borshchova. The village is about 10 miles north of Kharkiv and 10 miles south of the Russian border. The only residents left here are a few stray dogs and some young cats who emerge from the piles of bricks and splintered timbers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

BEAUBIEN: This part of northeastern Ukraine was fiercely contested by both sides until Ukrainian troops finally pushed the last Russian-backed forces out of Borshchova on September 11.

ENGINEER: (Through interpreter) Our troops moved through the forest. Right here in this street, there were battles. And it was like the front line before this village Borshchova.

BEAUBIEN: The soldier, who's only authorized to give his war nickname of Engineer, shows me and my translator, Polina Lytvynova, how the Russians had heavily fortified the small farming village.

ENGINEER: (Through interpreter) In every high building, they had so-called eyes. So there were, like, positions from what they were watching. They were very good equipment.

BEAUBIEN: The Russians used artillery at first to block Engineer's unit from advancing. They mined the edges of town. They built sandbagged machine gun positions. They dug trenches in front of almost every house.

ENGINEER: (Through interpreter) So here's Russian weapons which they used against us.

BEAUBIEN: He jokes there are so many spent Russian grenade launchers now lying around that we can take some home as souvenirs. His commander, who goes by the nom de guerre Authority, says the Russians didn't give up this territory easily.

AUTHORITY: (Through interpreter) It was pretty hard because they had heavily fortified positions dug into the ground, so we had to dig them out.

BEAUBIEN: This is an area that also backs up against the Russian border, allowing it to be easily resupplied from deeper inside the Russian Federation. Authority shows us a position next to the main road in Borshchova where two Russian armored personnel carriers were hidden in a thicket of trees. He says they would lumber forward on the metal tracks, fire at the advancing Ukrainians and then retreat back into the bushes. The section of road is now covered in spent bullet casings. Authority says the Russians appeared to have an endless supply of ammunition.

The counteroffensive here started on September 5. In some other places, Russian-backed forces fled ahead of the advancing Ukrainian troops. Authority says that wasn't the case here, and his troops had to use everything they could to dislodge the Russians.

AUTHORITY: (Through interpreter) We had to use artillery, tanks, howitzers. It took all the artillery we had and the artillery from other battalions.

BEAUBIEN: It wasn't until the fifth day of Ukrainians pounding Russian positions that he says Moscow's forces started to pull back significantly. And even then, Russian artillery covered their retreat all the way back to the border. In some other parts of the country, like the breakaway areas of the Donbas, Ukrainian troops are going to be up against Russian-backed forces that have had months, even years, to fortify their positions.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kharkiv, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF YRN SHXRD SONG, "YOUR POWER (OUTRO)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.