Russian forces have moved closer to Kupyansk in northeastern Ukraine, prompting growing calls for civilians to flee and reflecting the tough choices both sides must make about where to send reinforcements along of a front that stretches over hundreds of kilometres.
Kupyansk, a small town about 40 kilometers from the border with Russia, has been regularly bombarded by Russian artillery for months, and a 45-year-old civilian was killed on Tuesday when the meat processing plant where he worked as a security guard was hit, officials said.
The Russian army placed Kupyansk, already battered and largely depopulated, in his line of sight, hoping to induce Ukraine to come to the defense of the city by siphoning off soldiers from its own counteroffensive in the South and Southeast.
The Ukrainian commanders, in turn, hope that the slow progress they are making in this counter-offensive will force the Russians to redeploy their forces from Kupyansk to these battlefields.
The Russians advanced to within a few miles of the town and on Friday the highest Ukrainian general in the East publicly called for more reinforcements to hold them.
“The Russians seem to be making progress” around Kupiansk, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said. recognized at a press conference on Monday.
Ukrainian officials have been saying for months that civilians should leave the area, and in early August they said a mandatory evacuation for 11,000 people who remained near the front lines in the Kupyansk region.
But most of these residents seem to have defied the order. Only some 1,400 people, including 343 children, have left the country, according to Oleh Syniehubov, head of the regional military administration.
“We continue to work on the evacuation of the civilian population from dangerous areas of the Kupyansk region,” Syniehubov said in a statement. post on telegram messaging app Monday.
Kupyansk fell to Moscow forces shortly after the February 2022 invasion, and they used it as a logistics hub until it was recaptured by the Ukrainians last September, when they drove out the Russians most of the northeast. Since then, forces from Moscow have bombarded Kupyansk with artillery, preventing any return to a semblance of normal life.
Many residents fled the invasion last year. Some returned and found neighborhoods in ruins. As in the long and bloody battles they waged to take control of Mariupol and Bakhmut, the Russian forces have demonstrated their willingness to raze a town in order to seize it.
Still, some of those who remained in Kupyansk say they don’t want to leave their forever homes. Many are old and in poor health and fear economic insecurity if they move.
“I don’t know what I’ll do if I’m evacuated,” said Oleksandr Shapoval, 63, who lives in an area west of Kupyansk that was relatively spared the shelling. “Here, we have a small house, we have a small vegetable garden. We have something here.
Mr Shapoval, speaking by telephone, said he suffered from heart problems and high blood pressure. The shelling has intensified in recent weeks and “the Russians are coming”, he said. But he added that he believed the town would hold out and that he was staying to help the Ukrainian troops by cooking for them and doing their laundry.
“I don’t think Kupyansk will surrender,” Shapoval said.
Some Western officials have said that Ukraine should concentrate all forces this is possible during the counter-offensive from the south. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed those criticisms, saying Ukrainian forces would not be shy away from defending places like Kupyansk.
British Ministry of Defense said friday that “there is a realistic possibility that Russia will increase the intensity of its offensive efforts” in northeastern Ukraine. He adds that Russian forces will likely attempt to advance west to the Oskil River, which runs through Kupyansk from north to south. Russian forces could then use the river as a natural barrier against further Ukrainian attacks.
But recent reports Western military analysts have suggested that the opposite could happen: that the Russian army could move its forces from the east to the south to strengthen its defenses there, which could ease the pressure on Kupyansk.
Since June, Ukraine has been on the offensive, attempting to drive a wedge south into Russian-occupied territory, dividing and cutting off Moscow’s supply lines. One Ukrainian push targeted the town of Melitopol and another the town of Berdyansk, both located in the Zaporizhzhia region, but each advanced only a few kilometers against elaborate Russian defences.
At the same time, the Ukrainians made some gains to the west of this fighting, in the Kherson region, and to the northeast, around Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, which the Russians have fully held since May.
In the Donetsk region, Ukrainian officials said Russian shelling of a dozen villages on Tuesday killed five civilians and injured four. Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the regional military administration, posted on Telegram several photos showing destroyed houses and the ceiling of a house pierced by what appeared to be the skeleton of a fragmentation rocket, a weapon that opens in the air to launch bombs over a wide area.
The authenticity of the images could not be independently verified.
Thomas GibbonsNeff And Dzvinka Pinchuk contributed reports.