The Daily Telegraph
‘They were running from their positions, leaving all their stuff ’
As Ukrainian troops close on Russian units, witnesses say Moscow’s soldiers are ‘afraid’ and fleeing in panic
By the time the Russian soldiers knew what was happening, their panicked commanders had already fled the battlefield. With the Ukrainian advance closing in around them there was only one way out alive. They slipped out of their military uniforms and abandoned their tanks, bunkers and machine-gun nests – a final, desperate attempt to flee in the fields and villages around Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv.
But they soon ran into trouble. “We caught some of these guys trying to escape in civilian clothes,” a commander of a Ukrainian intelligence unit told The Daily Telegraph yesterday. “They were telling some incredible bull---t trying to save themselves,” added the soldier, known by his call sign Birdie.
It had been the job of Birdie’s unit to spy on the Russian forces’ response to Ukraine’s surprise offensive in the Kharkiv region over the past five days.
Instead of a fightback, he had witnessed the extraordinary collapse of the Kremlin’s northern front line.
Birdie’s account of Russian soldiers fleeing in panic is one of the first eyewitness statements from the battlefield. Having slept little since the operation began, and with blue tape still tied around the sleeves of his uniform to identify him as a Ukrainian soldier, Birdie was upbeat as he spoke to us on his return from the front line.
The 31-year-old’s intelligence unit is part of the Kraken Regiment. It had spent a week intercepting radio communications and surveilling Russian positions using drones around Balakliya.
“I saw small units of up to five of our guys on foot who were destroying huge numbers of Russian vehicles. Three tanks at one time,” he said.
The Russian collapse had even taken the Ukrainian forces by surprise.
“It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said of his unit’s work co-ordinating Ukrainian ground forces via drone as they attacked Russian positions.
“They left such a huge amount of vehicles and ammunition that we couldn’t transfer or evacuate it all to our rear,” Birdie said.
In one intercepted communication, Birdie described hearing a Russian tank unit desperately asking what had happened to their command.
“We are totally f-----,” Birdie heard them saying. “Then they fled. Later we found their burned tank.”
Other Russian troops were unable to distinguish their own forces from advancing Ukrainian troops.
“I heard them asking what were the white crosses on the vehicles. Then I heard them die in real-time, while I was listening,” he said.
White crosses are an identifier that Ukrainian forces have daubed on their tanks and armoured carriers. The Russian forces have used Zs and Vs as identifiers, symbols that have been adopted by pro-war activists in Russia.
Marty, a 25-year-old soldier in Birdie’s unit who comes from a liberated Ukrainian village, said: “I think it’s the beginning of the end for Russian occupants. They were literally running from their positions, leaving all their stuff and heading from the occupied territories.”
The eyewitness accounts add first-hand evidence to a growing body of photos and videos circulated online which show how the Kremlin’s military fled.
Dozens and dozens of tanks were abandoned and whole arsenals, neatly stocked from floor to ceiling with shells, small arms ammunition and grenades have been seized.
One unconfirmed video shows a Russian tank column speeding toward Russia across a bridge that spans the Oskil river, which flows south from Russia into Ukraine about 90 miles east from Kharkiv.
Another photo reportedly shows Lt Gen Andrei Sychevoi, one of Russia’s top commanders, kneeling on the ground, handcuffed. If his capture is confirmed, he will become the highestranking Russian officer to be captured since the Second World War.
The intelligence picture building up is that Russian soldiers did not have the time, discipline, morale or intent to withdraw in good order, despite Russian officials’ statements that their forces had enacted a tactical retreat.
“They were really afraid. Their chain of command was in chaos. Officers left the area before the fighting began,” said Birdie. His unit had been operating in Balakliya, 43 miles to the southeast of the city of Kharkiv which was recaptured this week in the Ukrainian counter-offensive that comes a little over six months since the start of Russia’s invasion.
The Us-based Institute for the Study of War has called the Russian pullback from its north-eastern front a rout. Ukrainian officials have said that they have taken back around 3,000 sq kms (almost 2,000 sq miles) of their occupied homeland.
This is the biggest loss of territory for Russia since it was forced to withdraw from outside Kyiv in March.
The losses have irritated Russian military bloggers who diligently follow the conflict and were once loyal to the Kremlin line. They have accused Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, of being on another planet for spending Saturday celebrating the 875th anniversary of the founding of Moscow by opening a new Ferris wheel and watching a fireworks display as his forces were being routed.
The successes of Ukraine’s offensive also appear to have unnerved leaders in the rebel Donetsk region. Ukrainian forces are reported to be on the offensive there too. “The situation here remains quite difficult,” said Denis Pushilin, the usually brash pro-russian head of separatist Donetsk.
At first the ministry of defence in Moscow claimed that the Russian troop movements were part of a planned “regrouping”.
Standing in the square in Kharkiv, Birdie laughed. “It was a good joke,” he said.
‘They were afraid. Their chain of command was in chaos. Officers left the area before the fighting began’