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What's to be done with Kupiansk?




The city of Kupiansk has a complex recent history and is one of the most problematic settlements on the Ukrainian front line with the Russian occupiers. The city is in the far southeastern corner of Kharkiv Oblast on the border with occupied Luhansk Oblast that has been held by the Russians since 2014. Days after the second Russian invasion of Ukraine, on 27 February 2022, as the Ukrainian Armed Forces blew up the main bridge into Kupiansk from Luhansk to prepare to defend the city, the Mayor of Kupiansk willingly surrendered to the Russians and was promptly indicted as a collaborator. The city is known to be heavily pro-Russian. Victory celebrations for the Russian success in occupying Kupiansk took place shortly afterwards, and the population seemingly rejoiced in their new rulers. It took months of preparation before the Ukrainian Armed Forces undertook a short but decisive battle of Kupiansk in September 2022 to retake the city from the poorly armed Russian occupying forces who were present in the city only in low numbers because they had been welcomed as liberators from Ukraine.


Since then the city has been the constant subject of targeted artillery and other airborne attacks from Russian positions outside the city in Luhansk Oblast, and the Russians have been biding their time building up their forces in readiness to retake the city and occupy it once more, and then to use Kupiansk as a foothold for an attack upon the rest of Kharkiv Oblast. All this takes places seemingly with the consent and acquiescence of the greater majority of the population of Kupiansk, who want to be liberated once again and to join their Russian cousins in the a newly formed Kharkiv Oblast in the Russian Federation. This is not what the rest of the people of Kharkiv want at all.


Tales have been heard of civilians living in Kupiansk spitting and swearing at the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the members of the International Legion, the foreign branch of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, that is stationed in Luhansk. The Ukrainian Armed Forces are seen as unwelcome occupiers by the locals, who reminisce fondly of their few months of imagined freedom under Russian rule between March and September 2022 and they hope that the Russians will re-occupy the city as soon as they can. This makes the operating environment for the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Kupiansk extremely unpleasant, was they are seen as occupiers not liberators. If troops are present in a city where the local people largely despise them, it is an entirely different experience from being perceived as the people preserving your liberty. Unfortunately the people of Kupiansk, in substantial proportion, don’t see it that way. Those people are traitors.


These problems cause us to face the stark reality that the reason the “people’s revolutions” in Luhansk and Donetsk were successful (entirely successful in Luhansk, only partially successful in Donetsk which is why Donetsk Oblast remains partitioned) is because there was strong support in those regions for reunification with Russia and these Ukrainians do not see themselves as Ukrainian at all. By contrast the “people’s revolutions” in other Oblasts, as far west as Odessa, failed back in 2014 because there was no strong popular support for political assimilation with Russia in the greater majority of Ukraine. Ultimately Russia is going to find it extremely difficult to retain any occupied territories in Ukraine where the population are independently minded and loyal to Kyiv, but relatively straightforward to maintain power where there is substantial pro-Russian sympathy amongst the population of the region in question. Sadly, Kupiansk appears to be a city where there is significant pro-Russian sympathy.


Nevertheless the Ukrainian Armed Forces can and must continue to defend Kupiansk relentlessly, notwithstanding the treacherous attitudes of some (not all) Kupiansk inhabitants. The reason is not just a point of principle: the borders between Ukraine and Russia were fixed by the Lisbon Protocol in 1993, guaranteed by the United Kingdom and the United States, and the people of Kupiansk are not free to declare independence from the rest of Ukraine outside the country’s ordinary constitutional procedures. Moreover we cannot allow Kupiansk to fall and thereafter serve as a bridgehead for further Russian aggression in the Kharkiv area and therefore whether the population of Kupiansk like it or not, the city is going to be defended.


The defence of Kupiansk is an absolute imperative, a mark in the sand because while Luhansk Oblast might be lost after a decade a relentless Russian domination of the entire region against a pliant population, we cannot allow the rot to extend any further. The forthcoming Russian offensive against Kupiansk, anticipated in the summer fighting season of 2024, must and will be resisted and this will draw Russian forces away from other parts of the front line. The Russians want Kupiansk as a sign of pride because it is one of the few places where they think they will be welcomed, if they capture it. Let them try. Every effort must be made to ensure that Kupiansk remains the right side of any future armistice line. And then enormous efforts, that may take generations, must be taken to disabuse the people of Kupiansk of the merits of participation in the Russian Federation, a cruel tyranny and one of the most repressive countries in the world. The people of Kupiansk should relish being part of Ukraine, independent and free.

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