How the Ukrainian SOF fought Russians in Izyum

From Ukraine, the ambush. Photo by Anatolii Shara

A few days ago I received a message on the Signal messenger from my old friend. His name is Olexander. He served in an elite special forces unit from 2014-to 2017 in the Donbas. When Russia launched a full-scale offensive on February 24, Olexander took his family to western Ukraine and immediately joined his unit. We sometimes corresponded with him all these three months of the war. He told me that his unit was fighting near the town of Izyum in the Kharkiv region.

Having learned that I planned to be in the Donbas, Olexander invited me to visit him. We met at the railway station in Kramatorsk, which the Russians recently shelled with a tactical missile Tochka, which led to a significant number of casualties. We greeted each other warmly and immediately went to their base. After a few hours of off-road driving, we finally arrived in a small village near the front line. There was the base of this special unit on an abandoned farm. Snipers were sitting around the perimeter of its territory. I saw several other men in MTP which is the standard camouflage pattern of the British Armed Forces in the bunker. They were actively discussing something while looking at laptop screens. Thanks to Elon Musk, there was high-quality high-speed Internet, and the military men could do their job smoothly.

Olexander’s appearance has changed a lot: grey hair, tired eyes, and new tattoos on his hands. As it turned out, the guys sitting on the couch are his brothers-in-arms. They are all fighting in this special unit.

By the way, Olexander has the nom de guerre “Musician”, because in everyday life he is a professional musician. He asked if anyone would mind if he quietly turned on the music on the laptop. Olexander is a great fan of the Finnish rock band Apocalyptica. That’s why our whole conversation was quietly accompanied by songs by this band. Finally, somehow unnoticed, we started talking about the war.

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From the first days of the invasion, the Russians tried to take Izyum as soon as possible. The seizure of this city would have opened the way to advance to Kharkiv and Donbas. Their initial plan was to surround Ukrainian troops stationed in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. To implement this, the Russians sent a considerable number of military forces. Russian artillery and aircraft immediately started to do their terrible work. They methodically destroyed the city’s infrastructure. As a result of these artillery and air strikes, many civilians died in the first days of hostilities.

From Ukraine, the ambush. Photo by Anatolii Shara

People en masse began to move to the basements. Food was prepared in the yards by the fires. Hospitals did not work. The doctors who stayed also went to the basements, where, among other things, even assisted in giving birth. Numerous unexploded shells protruded near the houses. At first, they tried to bury the dead in the yards of houses like in Mariupol. But then the locals became afraid to go outside – and the dead bodies began to rot. It was impossible to go outside without a mask. There was a terrible and disgusting smell that constantly caused vomiting. The homeless dogs ate the bodies, which had not been buried. It was worse than in Hollywood horror movies.

Olexander’s unit performed the functions of artillery reconnaissance. They provided information about the movement of Russian troops. They often had to act in the rear of the enemy. Despite fierce resistance, Ukrainian troops were made to retreat. They were not enough to deter the overwhelming Russian forces. Ukrainian soldiers had to retreat to the right bank of the Seversky Donets in Izyum. Olexander’s group had to blow up the bridge that connected the two banks of the river. This stopped the enemy for a while. However, Russian Engineering Forces tried to build temporary a pontoon bridge across the river in other suitable places. Ukrainian collaborators helped them in doing this.

From Ukraine, the Russian tank. Photo by Anatolii Shara

The occupiers were desperately looking for an opportunity to find a place for crossing at night so that Ukrainian intelligence could not notice their movements. The task of Olexander’s group was to spot the Russians. It should be noted that the Russians made many deceptive moves trying to confuse the Ukrainian artillery. Because they were very afraid of its shells. In reality, it looked like this: Russian military trucks were approaching the river in different places at the same time and allegedly starting to unload something.

And so one cold March evening, Russian military trucks with their headlights off quietly approached the suitable place where they could make the crossing. Olexander’s group, which conducted surveillance with the help of drones, noticed the movements of the Russians. They have just begun to unload. It must be said that the Russians worked quickly and professionally. Excavators also arrived at the spot and quickly began digging pits to install the first sections of the pontoon bridge. The drone immediately determined the number of military equipment concentrated on the opposite side and recorded their GPS coordinates. More and more Russian vehicles were coming to the pontoon bridge. Olexander gave the exact coordinates to the commander of the artillery battalion, who was waiting for a signal to open fire on the crossing. The Russians have already built the first section of the pontoon bridge. Their tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, trucks with ammunition, and soldiers began to arrive at this place. Gradually, Russian equipment filled the territory around the crossing.

From Ukraine, the Russian tank. Photo by Anatolii Shara

The commander of the artillery battalion impatiently asked when it was possible to start shelling. Olexander was waiting for the maximum concentration of enemy military equipment. He and his men numbered more than 70 units of military equipment. And when the Russians had already put the last section of the pontoon crossing and their tanks began to line up for the crossing, he told the gunners that it was already possible to open fire. A few seconds later, a shrill sound of falling shells was heard in the sky. They fell right next to the crossing. The shells fell into the river, raising huge waves.

Part of the Russian tanks began to turn around because it became clear that now hell would begin: the next strikes will be more accurate. Ukrainian artillery covered with fire the crossing and the place on the shore where the Russians had gathered. Tanks and other military equipment exploded from direct hits. The Russian tanks smashed each other in panic, they tried to escape, but no one had a chance to escape. The wind brought a smell which was a mix of engine oil, gunpowder, burnt metal, and human flesh to Olexander’s group. At the place where Russian troops were stationed just 5 minutes ago, there were now deep funnels. As it turned out, Ukrainian artillery killed many high-ranking Russian officers at this spot. Later, the Russians themselves reported this.

The Russians decided to take revenge on the city of Izyum: they inflicted massive artillery shelling on the city’s urban infrastructure. Residential neighborhoods were bombed. In fact, after that, the city as such ceased to exist. It does not need to be restored but rebuilt.

Here, in Izyum, the Russian airplanes made serious problems for Ukrainian troops. The Russians constantly attacked their positions with missiles and dropped bombs. Ukrainian air defense was absent in this direction. The only hope was placed on the American portable anti-aircraft missile system Stinger. So Olexander and his comrades were in the observation post of the mechanized brigade also stationed here. And suddenly they spotted a pair of Russian SU-34(fighter planes). They flew very low. An infantryman quickly opened a box of Stinger. He carefully unpacked and pulled out the anti-aircraft missile system itself. His friend helped put the Stinger on his shoulder. And immediately he unpacked another Stinger. The soldier stared at the sight for a long time. It seemed like an eternity. But suddenly he pressed the button and the rocket took off.

The rocket was rapidly approaching the plane, apparently, it had triggered sensors that a rocket was flying at him, because the plane raised its nose sharply and began to gain height, then fell to the side. The rocket still flew stubbornly in his direction. The plane tried to escape falling down, but the rocket hit one of the engines. The plane began to burn. Black smoke was coming from the engine. The plane began to spin in the sky, flying incredible trajectories. The Ukrainian military saw two objects flying away from the plane. Another plane immediately fled from this place. The guys from the special forces immediately understood what was going on: the crew of the plane used catapults to evacuate. A few seconds later, the plane crashed to the ground and exploded loudly. The special forces quickly gathered and went in search of Russian pilots. They were to land in the so-called “gray zone”, which was not controlled by either the Russian or Ukrainian military.

After some time driving on the spring field roads, special forces managed to find Russian pilots. They saw a parachute hanging on a tree. And there was no pilot seen. The Ukrainian soldiers thought he had managed to get rid of a parachute and escape to a nearby forest. Suddenly they saw traces of blood on the grass. And a few meters later they saw the mutilated body of the pilot in an orange jumpsuit. Remains of a parachute could be seen on his shoulders. It seemed to the special services guys that the slings were damaged or simply cut. 200 meters from this place they found the body of another pilot. The same story – the parachute slings were damaged. It seems that the Russians deliberately damaged the parachutes so that their pilots would not be captured.

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