"Awaiting an order." Battalion commander on Kharkiv counteroffensive, possibility of war in Russia
23 May, 2022
Commander of one of the battalions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine with the call sign "Philosopher", who took part in the counteroffensive against the Russians in Kharkiv Photo: provided to hromadske

From the end of April, news of the liberation of the occupied settlements began to arrive from the Kharkiv region. Ukrainian fighters gradually managed to push the aggressors to the border. The commander of one of the battalions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine with the call sign "Philosopher" believes that the army together with other combat formations managed to devise a full-fledged counteroffensive.

hromadske met with the commander in Kharkiv. During the conversation, "Philosopher" shared his vision of the counteroffensive, revealed how they managed to keep hold of the city in the first days of the large-scale attack and the possibility of continuing the war in enemy territory.

The goal is to reach the border

Can our actions in Kharkiv region be considered a full-fledged counterattack? I think so. We are now regaining the positions we lost on February 24.

Before that, we stopped the enemy at the frontier. We knew their position very well. We investigated the location of their firearms, positions, the number of personnel, etc., found weaknesses, and focused on them. This is the norm in the tactical actions of units and in normal armies: to find a weak spot – and strike where it hurts. And so we did, successfully.

But there are plans for the future – we need to restore the state border. There are reports that some long-range artillery systems have already been taken to Russia and they are firing from there. (A few days after this conversation, a video appeared of Ukrainian fighters installing a border post at the state border – ed.)

Will the fighting continue in enemy territory

My position involves tactics. This (fighting in Russia – ed.) is already at a strategic level. I think the commander-in-chief understands that better. If there is an order – we are ready. They have done a lot of damage to our country. And they will be unequivocally held responsible for this.

Українські військові їдуть вулицею Харкова з синьо-жовтим прапором, 16 травня 2022 року

The Ukrainian military drive along a street in Kharkiv with a blue and yellow flag on May 16, 2022

Photo: AP Photo / Bernat Armangue

How Kharkiv withstood

Russia deployed its artillery at the state border on February 23. On the night of February 24, I was right by the state border. At 3:58 am there was the first Russian red flare launch, and volleys of artillery, Grad, and missiles came flying over Kharkiv. At around 6 am, ground forces were already crossing the border.

The enemy forced us to retreat. Just so you know, there were six times as many of them as us. We had no choice but to maneuver on defense in order to keep our unit intact. From the very beginning, the task was maneuverable defense. We moved from frontier to frontier and inflicted fire damage on the enemy.

They marched in columns in a checkerboard pattern. The first vehicle from Hoptivka approached with the flag of Ukraine on top. The company commander reports to me: "The flag of Ukraine is on the Tigr." I say, "It can't be. Decision?" The company commander's decision was to open fire. I consented. So we started inflicting fire damage. The first to be put out of action was the Tigr vehicle, then the armored personnel carrier and the light armored multipurpose vehicle followed, and because of these vehicles tanks began to go around from the side, one of which was struck. And so the direct combat began, one of my armored personnel carriers was damaged.

Our main task was to keep hold of Kharkiv and prevent the enemy from entering the city. As we later found out during the seizure of their documents and maps, the enemy was tasked with encircling Kharkiv using motorized infantry units. They had information that there were no troops in Kharkiv, only minor militia. That's what they called the 92nd Brigade. They thought we were not here. And they confidently proceeded towards surrounding Kharkiv. But they did not succeed.

We met them with dignity 5-6 km from the border. The first columns were stopped, and some of them faced firepower. That is, all units performed the task as it should be.

At that time, all the people in my battalion were contract soldiers. There were no mobilized personnel yet. That is, only those who performed tasks in the Joint Forces Operation area. But there was still a young inexperienced replenishment. However, they fulfilled their task. And yes, there were losses. Minimum losses for the task we performed. But it still hurts that there were.

The key battles for Kharkiv took place in the first days of the large-scale invasion. Then we did not allow the breakthrough of Russian units to the city itself.

On February 25, the city had not yet been shelled by artillery and volley fire systems because they were still drawing in their columns and did not yet understand what was going on where. The important thing that hampered them, and we benefited from it, is their inferior communication. Although there is some connection between the units or within the BTG (battalion-tactical group - ed.), It is awful between the neighboring units. And when they went towards Kharkiv, they had tasks: on the 24th they cross the state border, on the 25th they set up an outer circle around Kharkiv, on the 26th they had another day to blockade Kharkiv, and on the 27th special forces had to enter the center of Kharkiv. Those were experts who needed to capture key facilities. And so they thought: in the specified time Kharkiv is blocked, Ukrainians do not know what to do, everyone fled, and the occupiers will really rule the city, plus pro-Russian forces will attend rallies, raise the tricolor and voila — the city surrendered. But it all went wrong.

Українські військові б'ють по російським позиціям на території Харківської області, 17 травня 2022 року

The Ukrainian military attacking Russian positions in the Kharkiv region on May 17, 2022

Photo: AP Photo / Bernat Armangue

On the morning of February 27, there was a breakthrough of special forces to Kharkiv from three directions. Our units, actually my battalion in cooperation with a separate special unit "Omega", with the help from the special unit "Cord", the 3rd Brigade of the National Guard. That is, everyone had one task: to prevent a breakthrough into the city. On the third day of the all-out invasion, a defense was built, and we could already perform tasks. There were already some observation posts, ambushes, and primitive bases. And the unit commanders reported to me that there were breakthroughs. There were three of them. Their 4 Tigrs and 2 KAMAZ armored vehicles came. One column passed through Lisopark district, entered it and was met by the 3rd Brigade of the National Guard with its reserves; my units came from the rear. This column was destroyed along with special forces, and only several people may have escaped.

They did not account for weather conditions — then there was wet snow and swamp. They went through Lisopark, where they started to get bogged down, it stopped them a bit. Our units went there and destroyed them.

Then the second group of Russians went through Oleksiyivka. Our spies were stationed there, they took the fight and destroyed the occupiers. Their Tigrs were destroyed throughout the city, they stood burned here.

And the third group passed the regional state administration and then drove into Shevchenko Street. My understanding is that they were ready to defend themselves there. It is unclear just why they chose the school. It is not a strategic facility. But they left 4 Tigrs near the school, and proceeded into its premises. There was a security guard near these Tigrs, and my guys captured him. It was the 25th Sevastopol and Crimean Brigade. They established themselves in the school building, and took up circular defense. The ground floor was cleared together with our other units, on the first and second floor and on the roof they already had a solid defense. But in four hours of fighting for the school, we destroyed the enemy. They did not want to surrender, ran through the attic in gas masks, and shot back to the last, even when the school was on fire. One fell from the first floor, he was also taken prisoner. And the rest were burned alive there.

Українські військві у лісі Харковської області, 15 травня 2022 року

Ukrainian troops in the forest of Kharkiv region, May 15, 2022

Photo: AP Photo / Mstyslav Chernov

In addition to what was happening within the city, attempts to break through to Kharkiv began from all directions. But their maps were outdated, without any important roads. And there were already our units defending at key intersections. From our side, everything was ready to commence fire. We inflicted maximum fire damage on them. And they stopped.

Later, they occupied some key heights, at a distance just to be able to reach with artillery. Also then there were attempts of penetration into the city by reconnaissance and sabotage teams. But in a month everything came to naught. And then we started looking for their weaknesses, we started to recapture our territories.

What will the victory be like

Prior to the large-scale invasion, we had obscure pro-Russian parties, etc., that destabilized the country as best they could. We restrained it as best we could. The army is generally apolitical, and we adhere to that. Whatever the political games, the army has nothing to do with it. We have tried to do everything to save our country, and we are doing it.

I have been living in Kharkiv for a long time. And you know, until February 24, 2022, Kharkiv was about 70% pro-Russian. There are a lot of locals who have families in Belgorod and further in Russia. They visited each other at weekends. When the war in the country has been going on for eight years, when you return from the east from rotation, come to Kharkiv with your family just to rest for the weekend, go around the city and look at Russian numberplates, you get agitated. Well, I'm sorry, what on earth have you come to Ukraine for? If everything is so “fantastic” there, so "awesome", why do you come to that Kharkiv market "Barabashovo" and stock up here, and then go back to Belgorod? What for? “Everything is tight" there, "everything is kickin" there, it’s “quality” there.

But after February 24, I will tell you this: Kharkiv has changed a lot. The local population — even those who were pro-Russian — when rockets and volley fire systems struck, when Saltivka (a district in the north of Kharkiv — ed.) was razed to the ground, roughly speaking, started pondering. When people lived in the subway and started to get out of there, from the basements, when we drove the Russian army away from Kharkiv, it changed people a little.

You know, we have one inmost desire — for the last Muscovite to leave our territory. But he will not go of his own volition — he will either be driven out or carried out. But the victory will definitely be ours. We are on our land, we are defending our land. We did not come to them for anything, we did not come to ask for something, we are a self-sufficient country with everything we need.

Western partner states are comfortable with us. We need to develop our country, see how other states live. And in Russia, only a few cities live normally, and the rest are doomed to squalor, there is nothing to see, they are a total joke.

So there is a wish for everything to end — only with victory. And for all the boys to return home. Everyone alive and well.

Do you know how difficult it is to read daily updates? We constantly receive reports not only from the media, but reports from the Armed Forces. It is very painful when we learn that there are losses among children. Children are not guilty of anything in this war. Maybe the adults, who are already over 18, have screwed up a lot in this life. But the children...