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Witnessing Reality: Observations from Kupians'k's Frontlines

By: Shannon Taft

“As soon as we win

And smoke from every heart will fly away 

I will see your eyes again 

Because I can’t do anything without your look

And your look will be different

More smart and more soft

And I will be able to breathe it soon as we win”

This poetic mural on the side of a bombed out building in Kupians’k captures the hopeful and enduring spirit of the Ukrainian fighters on this frontline city. The Russians are opposite the town, across the Oskeii River, shelling the defenders, and what remains of the town. The Institute of War has an interactive map, updated daily, that shows the active frontline ( Kupians’k is the furthest reach of the Russians on the northern arena of the conflict. A visit to the town included a short stop in Shenchenkove, a small village that had a string of cafes and shops, and a Nova Poshta, and some outlying homes. The Nova Poshta was very busy, with a line of soldiers opening newly received packages in the dirt lot to disperse to the right recipients. A small cafe with 10 tables for indoor seating served fresh pizzas, stuffed pastries, and meals like Olivya Salad, fried chicken, cooked sausage, and the likes. Soldiers huddled around tables and walk-up windows in groups of 4-5, drinking coffee and chatting. We approached one of them and asked–via a translate app–if the road to Kupians’k was open. 

“Mmmmhmmm” was the reply. So we pressed on.

Entering the city was unsurprisingly reminiscent of Konstantynivka in the sense that much had been destroyed, almost all of the citizens had left, and what remained was temporary shops and markets with the appearance of being able to be quickly evacuated, if needed. Groups of soldiers loitered in various spots, and all variety of civilian vehicles with the olive drab spray paint and white cross of the Ukrainian distinction drove around the city.

 What was different from the southern frontline town was the absence of heavy military equipment. No tanks. No armored personnel carriers. No heavy transport trucks. This is a town where the previous mayor had handed control of the city to the Russians only 3 days after the official invasion–a crime for which he was arrested by Ukrainian authorities and charged with treason. The town was retaken by the Ukrainians following a successful counter-attack, but even after the liberation, a rift between the residents and soldiers persisted as Ukrainian troops reported that the citizens seemed to favor Russian occupation over the now constant shelling and displacement.

Now, as the city withstands fresh Russian assaults from across the river–and many citizens have fled since 2022–the tension may have naturally dissipated. We interacted minimally with a unit of 5 Ukrainian troops stationed in the municipal square, facing the river, under the cover of some trees on the high end of the river bank. They seemed to be an outlook assignment, in case the Russians attempted a river crossing. They were armed with radios and AK’s, a long rifle, and what seemed to be a 30mm machine gun in the bed of a camouflaged military troop truck. They had no insignia or identification on their uniforms.

We visited the intact church in city center–it’s only damage seemed to be holes in the outer facade from machine gun fire. The sisters inside were cleaning and observing their normal duties. Solitary elderly citizens were walking the streets with rolling baskets behind them–either returning or going to the market with minimal necessities stocked. A small refrigerated truck rolled into town, with marketing for ice cream bars on the side; but this was transport of perishables like meat, cheese, and dairy–the resupply truck for the few open markets remaining.

The sounds and intensity of the shelling, coupled with the presence of river sentries and absence of any city life apart from the military, seemed to indicate the imminent attempt of the Russians to occupy this town–again. The aurora of the town is not tense, or even hostile. One must wonder if this is a “calm before the storm”, or are external perspectives of this frontline misguided, as the majority of Ukrainian defense activity is focused on the southern arena of the conflict. 

As Ernest Hemingway stated: “"War is chaos, and chaos is unpredictable. No one can foresee all the variables that will come into play."


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