A mandatory evacuation has been ordered for the Ukrainian city of Kupyansk and its surrounding areas, as Russia intensified shelling of Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region and claimed to have captured Ukrainian positions near the city on Thursday.
Kupyansk, which lies close to the Russian border, fell to Moscow’s forces within the first week of their invasion in February last year. It remained under Russian control for several months, before a swift Ukrainian offensive liberated the city in September, along with a number of other settlements in the region.
But in recent weeks Russia has stepped up its efforts to capture the city for a second time. A local Ukrainian official said Thursday that substantial Russian reinforcements had turned the northern front of Kharkiv region into the “epicenter” of hostilities, “where the enemy is concentrating its main efforts.”
Kupyansk authorities estimated that around 12,000 people, including more than 600 children, are now subject to evacuation orders.
Evacuations of this scale are infrequent. Russian-appointed officials organized partial evacuations of the occupied Zaporizhzhia region in May, amid shelling around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Thousands were also evacuated from the Kherson region in June, after the breach of the Nova Kakhovka dam caused severe flooding.
But Ukrainian authorities have not ordered an evacuation of this scale since October last year, when they launched an offensive to reclaim territories captured by Russian forces in Kherson and sought to protect civilians by removing them first.
The Kupyansk evacuation order includes settlements to the north and east of the city – on both sides of the Oskil river. Ukrainian forces have held onto positions on the east bank, but are getting pummeled by dozens of air strikes and artillery barrages every day.
Andriy Kanashevych, acting head of the Kupyansk District Military Administration, said it was difficult to say how many people had already left, because it was unclear how many had remained in Kupyansk after it was liberated last year.
Kanashevych told Ukrainian television he expected those affected by the order to “pack up and leave,” but added “we realize that not everyone will want to do so.”
However, he warned that Russian assaults had markedly intensified this week, saying that “more powerful weapons are being used” and warning of “a significant threat to local residents.”
“Russian terrorists are becoming even more cynical and completely indifferent to human life. As a result, almost every day we have dead and wounded among the civilian population,” he said.
The new ‘epicenter’
Russia has been preparing to mount an advance on Kupyansk for several weeks.
In July, Serhii Cherevatyi, a Ukrainian spokesman for the Eastern Military Grouping, warned that Russia had dramatically bolstered its forces in the region.
“The enemy has concentrated a very powerful grouping on the Lyman-Kupyansk direction, with over 100,000 personnel, over 900 tanks, and over 370 MLRS (rocket launchers),” Cherevatyi said, adding that Russian forces were “putting everything into breaking through our defense.”
Earlier this week, Ukrainian authorities had urged Kupyansk residents to evacuate children and those with limited mobility. At least three civilians were killed and nine others injured in a Russian missile attack near the city on Tuesday.
The strikes intensified throughout this week, with the city council building in Kupyansk targeted in an airstrike overnight Wednesday, which killed two people.
“Over the past 24 hours, Russians massively shelled settlements of Bohodukhiv, Kharkiv, Chuhuiv, Izium and Kupyansk districts with guided aerial bombs and other weapons,” said Oleh Syniehubov, head of the Kharkiv regional military administration.
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed Thursday that its forces had captured Ukrainian positions and observation points around the village of Vilshana, northeast of Kupyansk, adding that its forces had defeated up to a platoon of infantry in the area (between 20-50 soldiers).
By concentrating their efforts on Kupyansk and the surrounding area, Russia is hoping to fix Ukrainian troops in the region, preventing them from assisting in Kyiv’s counteroffensive elsewhere – especially in attempts to reclaim territory around Bakhmut, south of Kupyansk in Donetsk region.
This strategy also aims to bring Russia closer to one of its stated goals – of securing all of the eastern Luhansk region and possibly reaching the natural barrier of the Oskil.
Russia may also have attempted to exploit potential vulnerabilities in Ukrainian defenses where it suspected units may be weaker.
Since recapturing Kupyansk and other parts of Kharkiv region in September last year, Ukraine has embarked on an ambitious offensive in the south. Its forces are stretched at multiple points, along a front line extending nearly 1,000 kilometers. Ukrainian officials say that Russian forces expended half a million rounds of munitions in one recent week on the Kupyansk-Svatove front alone.
Ruslan Muzychuk, a Ukrainian National Guard spokesman, told Ukrainian television Thursday that “the Kupyansk direction remains the epicenter of hostilities, where the enemy is concentrating its main efforts.”
“The number of enemy forces and means and its recent activation in this area of the front are aimed at trying to turn the tide in this section of the front.”