Crawling forward block by block, Ukrainian soldiers of a reconnaissance unit found signs of a retreating Russian army everywhere: a charred armored vehicle, a discarded body armor adorned with an orange and black ribbon de Saint-Georges, a Russian military symbol and the traditional blue and white striped underwear issued to Russian soldiers, dumped in a forest.
What they did not encounter was the Russian army in an organized state.
After a month of fierce street fighting, one of the most pivotal battles of the war ended this week – at least for now – with an unlikely victory at Irpin for the outnumbered Ukrainian army and in armament.
By Tuesday, Ukrainian forces had crushed any significant Russian resistance in this strategic outlying town near the capital Kyiv.
Pockets of Russian soldiers remained, posing risks. A shootout erupted in the afternoon when Ukrainian soldiers destroyed a lone Russian armored personnel carrier in an otherwise empty neighborhood, according to a commander.
But the Ukrainian army had essentially retaken Irpin, a town both strategic and symbolically important as the closest the Russian army had come to kyiv, just 3 miles away. Its success in driving out the Russians may have factored into the Russia-Ukraine peace talks in Istanbul on Tuesday, when the two sides made what appeared to be their most substantial progress yet.
Moscow has vowed to reduce “by multiples” the intensity of its military activity around Kyiv, an area that includes Irpin, in effect acknowledging that its advance towards the capital had stalled and was, at least in some places, being pushed back .
With superior numbers and armament, Russia could always decide to mount another assault on Irpin. And Ukrainian security experts have expressed skepticism about Russia’s commitment to withdraw. “They will not abandon their plan to take the capital,” said Oleksandr Danylyuk, former secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council.
Still, some people saw Irpin’s recovery as a moral victory, even though street fighting continues in the city and military gains may be tentative.
Kyiv has always been the biggest prize of all for the Russian military, as the seat of government and a city steeped in Russian and Ukrainian identity. But the Ukrainian army’s performance in the fierce street fighting in an arc of outlying towns and villages became emblematic of the challenges Russian forces would face as they attempted to encircle or capture the capital.
“Today we have good news,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a videotaped speech on Monday. “Our defenders are advancing in the kyiv region, regaining control of Ukrainian territory.”
Mr Zelensky said the town of Irpin had been “liberated”. He added: “Well done. I am grateful to everyone who worked for this result.
Here, as elsewhere in the fighting around kyiv, the Ukrainian army achieved its success on the battlefield by deploying small, fast, largely dismounted units that set up ambushes or defended sites using local knowledge. Many such units are based in the center of kyiv and drive into the war zone.
The reconnaissance unit patrolling Irpin on Tuesday, which is part of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, uses a closed bar in kyiv as its base, now cluttered with sleeping bags, ammunition boxes and hand grenades.
At dawn on a clear, cold Tuesday morning, soldiers donned body armor and ammunition pouches, with the sound of velcro crackling, then jumped in place to make sure their gear was okay. attached. The bar’s stereo was playing Ukrainian folk songs.
The Irpin front was a short drive away. The soldiers infiltrate the city in small groups of three or four, to avoid attracting Russian artillery, then regroup in a maze of alleys.
“We are defending our land,” said a commander of one of the two squads, made up of eight men each. He asked to be identified only by his first name, Bohdan. While the Russian army has withdrawn in force, he said, Ukrainian soldiers have yet to search house by house in the city to flush out pockets of remaining enemy soldiers.
“We move into a neighborhood and if there is contact, we fire or call in the artillery,” he said of these operations. “If there is no contact, well, it is clear that this territory is ours again.”
The mayor of Irpin, a once quiet and leafy suburb with a pre-war population of around 70,000, said all but around 4,000 civilians had fled. The patrol encountered only one elderly man, who waved to them from behind the window of a house.
In a city park, the Ukrainian patrol found a destroyed Russian armored personnel carrier, burned in places with a rich orange color. Besides the vehicle were the traditional blue and white undershirts used by Russian soldiers called telnyashkas. Elsewhere, they found a cardboard box labeled Russian army food. “Individual food ration”, indicates the label. “Not to sell.”
The soldiers took selfies next to the incinerated armored personnel carrier. Some ducked into the pine forest to rest, gazing at the sight of the wrecked vehicle where Russian soldiers had died. The bodies had been recovered earlier, but by whom was unclear.
“I don’t see the Russians as enemies,” said a Ukrainian soldier who only offered his first name, Hennady, out of concern for his safety. “They’re just inert people, doing things without knowing what they’re doing.”
The day had been quiet but suddenly changed with a cacophony of heavy machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenade explosions as the squad led by Bohdan, who had remained behind, encountered a Russian armored personnel carrier. Why he stayed there, otherwise empty of Russian soldiers, was unclear. Later, a commander said the vehicle was destroyed.
Serhiy, one of the soldiers, offered a more skeptical assessment of Ukrainian gains at Irpin. While perhaps the largest occupied city had been recaptured, he said, control of Ukraine was uncertain.
“We have a provisional front line” now outside Irpin, he said, “but the key word is provisional.”
“Their target is Kyiv,” he added. ” They will come back. They will have to cover this ground again.
New York Times