A patch with the British union flag shone brightly on the man’s soiled clothing as his corpse was extracted from the clay and placed on a leopard-print blanket on a beautiful autumn afternoon just outside Kharkov.
Local resident Sergiy Lutsay, 40, told Ukrainian police he could have examined the corpse — a civilian, judging by his shoes and clothing — when Russian soldiers forced him to bury it and another body in March.
While the identities of the bodies remain a mystery, Kharkiv Police Chief Volodymyr Tymoshenko suspected war crimes.
The men showed signs of torture and at least one had the ears chopped off, he said, although this was not clear given the advanced state of disrepair.
‘War is the art of lying. And our troops managed to fool the other side’
The fate of the men in an unknown hamlet called Hrakove would have remained an anonymous tragedy, had their burial place not been discovered during a surprising lightning strike last week, which could prove to be a key moment in the war.
Last week, Ukrainian troops broke a months-long stalemate on one of the war’s main front lines.
Hrakove, a cluster of war-damaged houses surrounding a church at a crossroads, is part of a wide swath of the Kharkov region in the northeast that Ukrainian forces liberated from Russian occupation.
It includes the strategically important cities of Izium and Kupyansk.
Moscow acknowledged yesterday that it was withdrawing from Izium, a retreat that marks Russia’s biggest loss of territory since it was forced to halt its attack on the capital Kiev in March.
The rapid advance meant that reporters who had been taken on an organized trip to Hrakove on Friday, two days after the liberation, were shown an area already far behind the front lines. Ukrainian forces had advanced an additional 40 miles (64 km) east to Kuyansk, the Kharkiv police chief said.
Yesterday, the counter-offensive had turned into a widespread defeat of Russian forces — leaving Ukrainians ecstatic, pro-Russian commentators despondent and analysts and journalists struggling to keep up.
Nearly 2,500 square km of territory had been recaptured on Friday, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a figure that does not take into account Izium and Kupyansk.
Amid a strict media blackout, many details remained blurry. Occasional official announcements are complemented by triumphant online videos of Ukrainian soldiers raising flags in “occupied” cities and being greeted by appreciative locals.
In Moscow’s first official acknowledgment of the magnitude of the defeat, the Russian Defense Ministry announced yesterday that it was “regrouping”.
“In order to achieve the goals of the special military operation to liberate Donbas, it has been decided to regroup Russian troops stationed in the regions of Balakliya and Izium, in order to strengthen efforts along the Donetsk Front,” the Russian ministry said. of Defense in a statement.
“A number of diversionary and distracting activities were carried out to disguise the real actions of the troops,” it added, in comments widely mocked online.
In particular, the liberation of Izium represents a major and unexpected victory for the Ukrainian armed forces.
“It is a strategic point for both sides,” Izium councilor Maxim Strelnyk told reporters earlier this week. He called his city “the gateway to the Donbas” and praised the ongoing Ukrainian operation to liberate it as “genius”.
Hora Kremenets, a high point on the right bank of the Siversky Donets River south of Izium, provides an impressive field of fire over the surrounding region, he said. “Whoever holds this point can control the environment for 60 kilometers,” he added.
Also important is the liberation of nearby Kuyansk, where Ukrainian soldiers uploaded photos of themselves with their flags raised. It puts Kiev in control of the railway lines that Russia had used to supply its troops in eastern Ukraine.
The rapid advance appears to have captured Russian forces unprepared, having moved troops to reinforce Kherson in response to a widespread Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south.
“It is well known that war is the art of lying,” Strelnyk said. “Our troops have managed to fool the other side. We pulled them in one direction – and then we struck in another place.”
“The Russian troops were probably taken by surprise,” the British Ministry of Defense said yesterday. “The sector was only kept lightly.”
Moscow desperately tried to drive reinforcements into the breach – reportedly including using Mi-26 helicopters to fly troops and armored vehicles to Izium and Kupyansk.
The speed of Ukraine’s advance rocked the Kremlin’s media.
“The news is disturbing,” said Russian television host Olga Skabeyeva, who blamed the advance on Western aid to Ukraine and said the troops used in the offensive had been trained in Britain.
Russia responded to the offensive yesterday and earlier this week with a series of air strikes on Kharkov and surrounding cities.
There were also reports of heavy fighting around the nearby towns of Lyman and Lysychansk, in the north of the Donbas.
Denis Pushilin, head of the pro-Russian separatist People’s Republic of Donetsk, said the situation in Lyman was “very difficult” and said there was also fighting in “a number of other places”, especially in the northern part of the region.
However, some Ukrainian citizens are already celebrating.
On Friday, the Hrakove man who had Forced by the Russian occupier to bury bodies, he prepared a celebratory meal of chopped potatoes, peas, carrots and other vegetables in the cellar beneath the ruined apartment where he and his elderly father had taken shelter for four months.
“Of course we’re happy,” he said. “What other reaction could we have?”
© Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2022)
Telegraph Media Group Limited