As Russia declares victory in Luhansk, Ukraine captures tanks and regains territory in neighbouring region

Even as Russia completes the capture of Lysychansk, Ukrainian soldiers say their own army is making modest gains elsewhere. A CBC crew visited the front near the Russian-held city of Izyum.

CBC News crew gets access to front line in eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian tank commander Oleksander Harmatko paints over the letter Z from a captured Russian tank near Izyum, Ukraine. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC News)

With a few strokes of his paintbrush, the Ukrainian tank commander erased the Kremlin's pro-war letter "Z" on the side of the Russian T-80 tank and rebranded it as the newest addition to Ukraine's fleet of armoured vehicles.

"We will hit [the Russians] with their own tank," said Cmdr. Oleksander Harmatko, appearing pleased as he put the finishing touches on the repurposed combat vehicle, which only days earlier had been firing at his own troops, near the Russian-held city of Izyum.

"This tank came to the front to 'work over' our positions," Harmatko told CBC News. "But our infantry shut it down."

He said the Russian tank gunner and commander were both killed trying to escape from the vehicle after its gun jammed, while the driver made it out alive and hid in tall grass hoping for an opportunity to escape.

Instead, he surrendered to Ukrainian forces after a night out in the open, said Harmatko.

WATCH | Ukrainian commander describes capture of Russian tank:

Ukrainians capture Russian tank

1 month ago
Duration 0:56
Ukrainian soldiers near Izyum describe how they captured a Russian tank and what they plan to do with it.

Ukrainian officials won't discuss the number of men or the amount of equipment they have facing Russian forces at the front in eastern Ukraine. But they confirmed that this platoon of the 93 Mechanized Brigade operating near Izyum, which is in Kharkiv oblast, has captured three such Russian tanks of late and quickly put them back into service.

Ukrainian soldiers interviewed by CBC at their front-line positions say Russia's triumphs in the Luhansk region have obscured hard-won military successes elsewhere — including in the neighbouring Izyum region.

Russian gains

Russia's war on Ukraine has become a grinding battle of attrition, characterized by a 1,000-kilometre front line and punctuated by an ongoing Russian offensive over a relatively narrow 90-kilometre portion near the eastern city of Lysychansk.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in the eastern region of Luhansk, a day after Russian state media claimed the army had driven Ukrainian defenders out of the city of Lysychansk, the last bulwark of resistance in the province. 

Ukraine's army says that its forces staged a strategic retreat, as the city was destroyed.

Nonetheless, the capture of Lysychansk represents a victory for Russia, as it now controls all the territory in Luhansk oblast, as well as half of neighbouring Donetsk.

Looking forward, the question is whether Russia's military can keep pushing farther into the Donbas, or if a combination of exhaustion and Ukrainian resistance will force it to halt.

The CBC News team walks past ammunition left behind by retreating Russian soldiers near Izyum. (Fred Gagnon/CBC News)

A team from CBC News was given unprecedented access to Ukrainian positions where the Donbas and Kharkiv regions meet. 

The trip involved a high-speed drive along a rough dirt road pockmarked with fresh artillery hits.

On either side, vast stretches of fallow sunflower fields showed the scars of intensive shelling, including multiple craters and brush fires from Russian munition strikes.

WATCH | Countryside in eastern Ukraine is pockmarked with craters of artillery strikes:

Landscape scarred by war

1 month ago
Duration 0:38
Drone video shows the pock-marked landscape near the front line around Izyum, Eastern Ukraine.

The sound of incoming Russian artillery mixed with outgoing Ukrainian fire from behind our position created near-continuous booms.

'Gradually, we are pulling forward'

In April and May, Russian troops drove hard through the rolling countryside to try to capture the nearby city of Slovyansk, with the aim of encircling a large part of Ukraine's army. But soldiers from the 93rd Mechanized Brigade stopped the Russian advance — and since then, Ukrainian forces have been slowly regaining lost territory.

"Gradually, we are pulling forward," said Sgt. Iryna Rybakova. "Almost every week our battalions are going forward a few kilometres."

Rybakova, 38, is a former journalist who worked for a Ukrainian anti-corruption agency before the war. She said in the last two weeks, Ukrainian forces have pushed Russian troops back at least five kilometres toward Izyum. 

Sgt. Iryna Rybakova, 38, is a former Ukrainian journalist and anti-corruption activist who is now a full-time soldier in Ukraine's army. (Fred Gagnon/CBC News)

But the Russians didn't give up the ground easily. 

Among the smashed buildings and discarded, empty cases of ammunition at a former Ukrainian command point are the remains of a Tochka-U ballistic missile, which Rybakova says caused immense damage to soldiers there.

"We are losing people, villages and weapons because of the harsh shelling," she said.

Other Ukrainian soldiers tell the same story, of harsh conditions on the front mixed with modest progress.

"We are killing them, and they are killing us," said one troop commander who goes by the nickname Yashchir, or Lizard. 

'I understand the scale of this war'

Yashchir led his platoon in an effort to repel a Russia counterattack that resulted in the capture of that T-80 tank — although it came at the cost of the life of one of his soldiers.

This Ukrainian platoon commander, who goes by the nickname Lizard, says he has been holding down front-line positions for the past 70 days. (Fred Gagnon/CBC News)

He said the tank driver who surrendered was a 32-year-old soldier from Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city. 

"Our captive told us his salary is 200,000 rubles [a month]," said Yashchir, which is about $4,000 Cdn — a large amount in Russia.

"But we are fighting for our land, not for money," said the platoon commander. 

Ukraine's military claims that Russia is conscripting young men, including teenagers, in the territories they occupy and forcing them to fight against Ukraine.

But the soldiers we spoke to said while many of the enemy fighters they encounter are in their early 20s, they have not detected any who appear to be conscripts.

The Ukrainian soldiers in the forward positions CBC spoke to said at night, Russian scouts come as close as 150 metres to their lines — so close that the Ukrainian lookouts can make out their faces.

"At the start it was very scary," said a Ukrainian soldier who goes by Arsen, about the experience of being on the front line. "But now I'm experienced."

A Ukrainian soldier who goes by the name Arsen says sometimes the Russian lookouts come as close as 150 metres to Ukrainian positions. (Fred Gagnon/CBC News)

A former history teacher, Arsen said unless the war ends and Russian troops are driven off Ukrainian soil, it will be impossible for him to return to life as a civilian.

"I understand the scale of this war," he said.

Waiting for Western weapons

Ukraine has not revealed how many of its soldiers have been killed or wounded, but at the height of the battles in Donbas, officials claimed it was losing several hundred soldiers a day.   

Russia claims it has killed 23,000 Ukrainian soldiers, but those numbers are impossible to verify — as are Ukrainian claims that it has killed more than 35,000 Russian soldiers since the invasion began on Feb. 24.     

Britain's government, which publishes a daily update on the conflict, has pegged Russian military deaths at about half that.

Ukrainian soldiers on the eastern front say they have been waiting for the arrival of more weapons provided by Western nations, including Canada. Only then will Ukraine stand a realistic chance of recapturing lost cities such as Izyum, or those in the Donbas, said a soldier named Marcel.

"In our area, I have heard there are M777 howitzers," he said, but as yet there are no signs of long-range rockets, such as the U.S.-made M142 High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). "The front is very long and we don't see much."

A Ukrainian soldier is seen with an anti-tank weapon. The soldiers told CBC News they have seen little evidence of Western weapons on the front lines so far. (Fred Gagnon/CBC News)

The only Western weaponry our team observed were soldiers with AT-4 anti-tank rockets, which are useful on defence and for close-up fighting, but not for countering Russia's massive advantage in artillery.

Ukraine's military claims Russia has fired more than 200 missiles at Ukrainian targets in the last two weeks alone, as part of an effort to stop those Western weapons from reaching the front lines.

As part of an agreement with Ukraine's military, CBC News cannot identify where our team visited on the Izyum front nor describe specific landmarks.

But the forward positions were bare-bones, with a shallow network of trenches and small command centres buried in the ground, set amid a dense line of trees and brush.

There were no obvious places to rest or eat, and many of the soldiers CBC spoke to appeared exhausted from lack of sleep.

"We all want to go home," said the platoon commander named Lizard. "We've been here for 70 days and we want to go back to our families as soon as possible."

Yet in spite of the fatigue, all of the soldiers said Ukraine must keep fighting until the last Russian leaves their territory.

WATCH | CBC speaks to Ukrainian soldiers on front lines in Donbas:

On the front line of Ukraine’s fight in the Donbas

1 month ago
Duration 3:12
CBC News gets rare access to a Ukrainian military unit operating near Izyum, a city held by Russia and a gateway to the Donbas region.


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.