A narrow victory
On July 19, four months after seizing the territory, Russian occupiers faced their first serious challenge from Ukraine’s armed forces, documents reviewed by Reuters show.
At the usual morning meeting in the bunker, the reports presented to the commander, Colonel Bobo, were normal: the previous night had been relatively quiet and the enemy positions had remained unchanged. On the agenda for the day: some planned artillery fire on Ukrainian positions.
But later in the afternoon, a column of Ukrainian soldiers, under the cover of tanks and artillery fire, attacked the Russian front line in Hrako, a village on the northwestern edge of territory controlled by the Balaklia force.
Troops from Russia’s 9th Motorized Rifle Regiment are locked in a concrete crane lift in Hrakov. They positioned guns at the top of the structure. A Reuters reporter who visited the facility in October found signs of men sleeping on grain conveyor belts.
At 15:00, an unnamed Russian in the front line at Hrako radioed his commanders in Balaklia: his position had been breached and he had to retreat. He requested artillery strikes to destroy the abandoned post. Then the connection was lost.
In the Balaklia bunker, an anonymous staff officer wrote in his notebook: “I ran out of bombs.”
The commander of the Western Military District, one of Russia’s most senior officers, demanded an explanation of the situation and “ordered that Hrakove not surrender,” further memo entries said. According to official records, the commander at the time was Colonel-General Alexander Zhuravlyov, since removed by Putin. However, Zhuravlyo was replaced by Lt. Gen. Andrei Chichevoi by July, independent Russian military analysts CIT said. Reuters could not reach Juravilo. Sychevoi did not respond to a request for comment.
Over the next few hours, Russian commanders sent reinforcements and mobilized attack helicopters. By 18:00, the Ukrainians retreated and Russian forces regained lost ground. But the cost was high. The Russians lost one tank, two armored personnel carriers and other equipment. According to a report to Bobo on July 21, thirty-nine men were wounded, seven dead, and 17 missing.
Among the Russian dead was Corporal Alexander Yevseliev, a tank commander. A casualty list inside the command bunker stated that his abdomen had been torn open, exposing his intestines, and that he had minor wounds on his right upper thigh. His parents, contacted by Reuters, said their son was critically injured when his position near Hrakov caught fire from a Ukrainian helicopter.
After the war, five soldiers required treatment for “acute stress reaction”. Next to each of their names in the medical register was written: “Evacuation not required.”
A soldier in his twenties was listed as suffering from blast injuries. Contacted by Reuters, the man said he remembered little, adding: “The fight was intense.” He spoke on condition of anonymity.
Following the battle, Colonel Popov petitioned his superiors to award 34 of his subordinates with medals for their bravery. The documents do not describe how his superiors responded. Two of the soldiers told Reuters they had not yet received their awards.
Pyotr Kalinin, a 25-year-old commander of a reconnaissance squadron, was on Bobo’s list. Kalinin is from Crimea and served as a cadet in Ukraine’s armed forces before Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, according to his social media. One photo shows him in Ukrainian uniform. Kalinin did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.