A short victory
On July 19, four months after taking the region, the Russian occupiers encountered their first serious challenge from the Ukrainian armed forces, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.
During the regular morning meeting in the bunker, the reports submitted to the commander, Colonel Popov, were normal: the previous night had been relatively quiet and the enemy positions were unchanged. On the program for the day: some artillery fire scheduled on the Ukrainian positions.
But in the early afternoon, a column of Ukrainian soldiers, supported by tanks and under the cover of an artillery barrage, attacked the Russian front line at Hrakove – a village on the northwestern edge of territory held by the Balakliia force.
Troops belonging to the Russian 9th Motorized Rifle Regiment were locked in a concrete grain elevator in Hrakove. They had positioned cannons atop the structure. A Reuters reporter who visited the facility in October saw signs that the men were sleeping on the grain conveyor belts.
At 3:00 p.m. an unnamed Russian on the front line in Hrakove radioed his commanders in Balakliia: His position was overrun, he said, and he must retreat. He asks for artillery strikes to destroy the post he is abandoning. Then the communication was lost.
In the Balakliia bunker, the anonymous staff officer writes in his notebook: “Ammunition is running out.
The commander of the Western Military District, one of Russia’s highest-ranking officers, demanded a briefing on the situation and “ordered that Hrakove not be returned”, other notebook notes said. According to official records, the commander at the time was Colonel General Alexander Zhuravlyov, since sacked by Putin. Independent Russian military analysts CIT, however, said Zhuravlyov was replaced in July by Lieutenant General Andrei Sychevoi. Reuters could not reach Zhuravylov. Sychevoi did not respond to a request for comment.
In the hours that followed, the Russian commanders sent reinforcements and mobilized attack helicopters. By 6:00 p.m. the Ukrainians were retreating and the Russian forces recaptured the lost ground. But the cost was high. The Russians lost a tank, two armored personnel carriers and other equipment. Thirty-nine men were injured, seven died and 17 are missing, according to a report presented to Popov on July 21.
Among the Russian dead was Corporal Aleksandr Yevsevleev, a tank commander. A casualty list inside the command bunker indicated that his abdomen had been torn open, exposing his intestines, and that he had shrapnel wounds to his upper right thigh. His parents, contacted by Reuters, said their son was fatally injured when his position came under fire near Hrakove from a Ukrainian helicopter.
After the battle, five soldiers needed treatment for “acute stress reaction”. Next to each of their names in the medical file was written: “Does not require evacuation.
A soldier in his 20s was listed as having sustained blast injuries. Contacted by Reuters, the man said he remembered little, only that “the fighting was fierce”. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
After the battle, Colonel Popov asked his superiors for 34 of his subordinates to be awarded medals for their bravery. The documents did not detail his superiors’ response. Two of the soldiers told Reuters they had not yet received their awards.
Pyotr Kalinin, 25, commander of a reconnaissance platoon, was also on Popov’s list. Kalinin is from Crimea and served briefly as a cadet in the Ukrainian Armed Forces before Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, according to his social media. A photograph shows him in a Ukrainian uniform. Kalinin did not respond to messages from Reuters seeking comment.