The Daily Telegraph

Ukraine’s precise message to Kremlin in destructio­n of army command centre

- By Roland Oliphant and Sergio Olmos in Izyum

‘When our military hit them, they fled in a hurry. They left behind their ammunition and even their shoes’

‘There weren’t detentions, executions, torture. There were a lot of young men who would say “we won’t shoot any bullets” ’

The Russian army headquarte­rs in Izyum looks like it was hit by a hurricane. Shattered walls, furniture in splinters, entire corridors scattered with rubble.

Underfoot, a June edition of Red Star, the Russian army newspaper, bearing the headline: “With precise focus on guaranteed results.”

The irony could not be more bitter. This command centre was destroyed by satellite-guided rockets from American-built Himars missile launchers – the precision weapons that underwrote a lightning Ukrainian offensive that liberated this city in just a few days late last week.

The first glimpse inside Izyum gives a sense of how complete and rapid the Russian defeat was.

But this is a city still in shock.

Not a single city block has escaped shell damage of some sort. About half of the windows in the town seem to have been blown out, but strangely almost none have been boarded up.

The streets are almost deserted. The only locals to venture out yesterday afternoon were elderly civilians trying to find a truck distributi­ng humanitari­an aid.

“It was very hard,” said Hrihory, a 63-year-old civil engineer, when asked about the occupation. “First the Russians shelled civilian infrastruc­ture: heating stations, bridges,” he said of the first battle in spring. “Then they hit us with cluster bombs, a lot of people were wounded. A lot of people were killed. Our home was blown in half. My apartment and my son’s apartment are completely destroyed.”

After the fear of the battle came the privations of occupation. “It was hard, we didn’t have electricit­y, gas and water.”

Then, very suddenly, it was over – and without a repeat of the agonising drawn out violence of the March battle.

“First day when our military hit them, they fled in a hurry. They left behind their ammunition and even their shoes,” he said.

Izyum fell to Ukrainian forces on Saturday. On Wednesday, Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, and General Oleksandr Syrskyi, the senior officer credited with commanding the operation, arrived to inspect the damage themselves.

Ukrainian triumphali­sm is understand­able. The Russians captured Izyum, a normally sleepy city on the main highway between Kharkiv and Donetsk, after a month-long battle in March. They quickly turned it into one of their most important logistics and command hubs, intending to use it for the springboar­d for the northern pincer of their grand summer offensive in Donbas.

In the event, that effort stalled. But Izyum remained a major Russian stronghold, and for the Ukrainians, a grave threat. Slavyansk, the gateway to Donetsk region, is just a 30-mile drive down the highway.

So the liberation of the city is not just a local victory: it has made Russia’s declared political objective of “liberating” Donbas impossible. But like every Ukrainian advance since the liberation of Buch in March, the euphoria is overshadow­ed by fear of what might be found.

Anton Herashchen­ko, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior ministry, told the BBC yesterday that about 1,000 bodies had been found in Izyum and that more civilians had died there than in Bucha.

The Daily Telegraph did not see any evidence of that scale of death during a visit yesterday. Hrihory denied knowledge of any war crimes.

“We didn’t interact with them, and they didn’t interact with us,” he said of the Russians. “From what I know, there weren’t detentions, executions, torture. There were a lot of young men who would say ‘we won’t shoot any bullets’.”

There is another unspoken, but troubling, shadow to the advance. Like civilians in all wars, those here seem wary of speaking.

When the flags change without warning, it is worth being careful what you say. Who knows which army will be in control next week.

Meanwhile, Mr Zelensky has promised to hunt down and jail “collaborat­ors” who worked with the occupation.

Anton Chernyshov, 31, is a local who was arrested and jailed by Russia’s FSB for stealing ammunition and throwing it into a swamp in what he calls his own “tiny partisan action”. He said attitudes in the town were mixed.

About two thirds of the town fled when the battle began in March, but of those who stayed for the occupation about half were sympatheti­c to Russia, he said. “They just believed the propaganda about the Russian World,” he said. With the internet cut off and only Russian newspapers and radio available, it was impossible to know if Ukrainian troops would ever return. “People still believed in Ukraine, but they were giving up, slowly,” he said.

The people he called real “collaborat­ors” fled with the Russians, Anton said. He said he saw a column of vehicles, containing anything up to a thousand people, leaving town once word got round about the retreat.

Evidence of the panicked Russian retreat is everywhere.

Not far from the concrete monument at the gates of the city where Ukrainian soldiers have been taking selfies lie the remains of a Russian strongpoin­t.

A few days ago, the trenches here evidently protected a bustling Russian firing position. Beneath the trees they left dozens of rockets and cluster bombs for Uragan multiple rocket launch systems. Some, but far from all, appear to have detonated.

Nearby, the carcass of a selfpropel­led howitzer, still emblazoned with the white Z of the invasion force, lies like a broken fossil.

Russia’s foreign ministry tried to lay out clear limits on the Western assistance that made this Ukrainian triumph possible, warning that deliveries of missiles with a greater range than those already provided would not be acceptable.

“If Washington decides to supply longer-range missiles to Kyiv, then it will be crossing a red line, and will become a direct party to the conflict,” said Maria Zakharova, the ministry’s spokesman.

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