A narrow victory
On July 19, four months after seizing the area, the Russian occupiers encountered their first serious challenge from Ukraine’s armed forces, the documents reviewed by Reuters show.
At the regular morning meeting in the bunker, reports submitted to the commander, Colonel Popov, were normal: The previous night had been relatively quiet and enemy positions were unchanged. On the agenda for the day: some scheduled artillery fire on Ukrainian positions.
But by early afternoon, a column of Ukrainian soldiers, supported by tanks and under cover of an artillery barrage, attacked the Russian front line at Hrakove – a village on the north-western edge of the territory held by the Balakliia force.
Troops belonging to Russia’s 9th motorised rifle regiment were holed up in a concrete grain elevator in Hrakove. They’d positioned guns along the top of the structure. A Reuters reporter who visited the facility in October saw signs the men slept on the grain conveyor belts.
By 15:00, an unnamed Russian on the front line at Hrakove radioed his commanders in Balakliia: His position was being overrun, he said, and he had to retreat. He requested artillery strikes to destroy the post he was abandoning. Then communication was lost.
In the Balakliia bunker, the anonymous staff officer wrote in his notebook: “The munitions are running out.”
The commander of the Western Military District, one of Russia’s most senior officers, demanded a briefing on the situation and “ordered that Hrakove must not be surrendered,” further notebook entries said. According to official records, the commander at the time was Colonel-General Alexander Zhuravlyov, since fired by Putin. Independent Russian military analysts CIT have said, however, that Zhuravlyov was replaced by July by Lieutenant-General Andrei Sychevoi. Reuters was unable to reach Zhuravylov. Sychevoi didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In the hours that followed, Russian commanders sent in reinforcements and mobilised attack helicopters. By 18:00, the Ukrainians were retreating and Russian forces were retaking lost ground. But the cost was high. The Russians lost a tank, two armoured personnel carriers and other equipment. Thirty-nine men were wounded, seven were dead, and 17 were reported missing, according to a report that was presented to Popov on July 21.
Among the Russian dead was Corporal Aleksandr Yevsevleev, a tank commander. A list of casualties inside the command bunker said his abdomen had been torn open, exposing his intestines, and he had shrapnel injuries to his right upper thigh. His parents, contacted by Reuters, said their son was fatally wounded when his position came under fire near Hrakove from a Ukrainian helicopter.
After the battle, five soldiers needed treatment for “acute reaction to stress.” Next to each of their names in the medical record was written: “Does not require evacuation.”
A soldier in his twenties was listed as having suffered blast injuries. Contacted by Reuters, the man said he remembered little, only that “the fighting was fierce.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Following the battle, Colonel Popov applied to his superiors for 34 of his subordinates to be given medals for their bravery. The documents did not detail how his superiors responded. Two of the soldiers told Reuters they have yet to receive their awards.
Pyotr Kalinin, a 25-year-old commander of a reconnaissance platoon, was also on Popov’s list. Kalinin is from Crimea and briefly served as a cadet in Ukraine’s armed forces before Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, according to his social media. A photograph shows him in a Ukrainian uniform. Kalinin didn’t respond to messages from Reuters seeking comment.