"Sitting and watching your city being torn apart is not an option" How the Kharkiv territorial defense defeated the elite russian special forces
SOURCE: https://www.pravda.com.ua/articles/2022/11/17/7376698/ KOSTYANTYN RYEUTSKY, OLEKSIY BRATUSHCHAK — THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 2022, 05:30
Three days after the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the russian military made a bold attempt to take control of the center of Kharkiv.
Several enemy units bypassed Ukrainian strongholds and advanced rapidly towards the center. If their plan had succeeded, if through the breach large enemy forces had entered to reinforce the vanguard, Kharkiv could not have resisted.
However, the enemy was met on the streets by the local Territorial Defense forces and civilian volunteers joined by police and military personnel. These are the same defenders that the russian propaganda machine mocked for their wooden training equipment facsimiles.
To a large extent, the Territorial Defense forces were essential to stopping the enemy from taking Kharkiv.
This story is about the battle between the defenders of Kharkiv and the largest Russian advance detachment, which lasted all day on February 27 near the Kyivska metro station.
Two tween girls are swinging in the courtyard of destroyed Kharkiv School No.134. Rising above the sports field is the blackened skeleton of a building that survived two world wars, but did not survive the Russian invasion.
The autumn sun colors the ruin in gold. An air-raid siren begins to wail over the city. The girls laugh and sway, none of the passers-by quicken their pace.
An ordinary day in Kharkiv, which has withstood the russian onslaught and is no longer afraid of anything.
We walk through the grassy, empty school yard with Dmytro Oliynyk. This 28-year-old volunteer from Kharkiv was one of those who, in the most terrible first days of the great war, took responsibility for his city and battled an aggressor with vastly superior advantages.
We meet to hear his account of the events on that February day when the century-old school building was reduced to rubble.
Several units of Russian special forces broke into the city from different directions. Their task was to take control of the main transport junctions and establish a position on the approach of the main forces. One advance group drove through the center of Kharkiv in the morning and was intercepted near the school.
“It was seven in the morning,” recalls Dmytro. “We received information that a group of Russians broke into the city. They drove in from the north, from Oleksiivka, and drove along Klochkivska to the center. They drove through the center, fired at the Nikolsky shopping center and went to Shevchenko.”
Near the school, the defense forces stopped a convoy of russian Tigers. One russian armored vehicle was hit. Russian special forces quickly took up defensive positions in the school.
“Most likely, they were waiting for reinforcements,” says Dmytro. “We think they planned to use the school stadium as a helipad.”
In the last years before this war, Dmytro worked as an adviser to the head of the Kharkiv Oblast Administration. His task was to develop territorial defense.
“During this period, we tried to teach the maximum number of people to handle weapons.”
A full-scale war seemed inevitable to Dmytro and his fellow local activists for a long time. In their opinion, it was only a matter of time.
They carefully studied the situation on the russian border, saw signs of preparations for an invasion, and repeatedly appealed to the local authorities with proposals to prepare for the defense of the region. But they were not heard.
“They directly told me, ‘You are young, green and there is no need to create panic here, people should live calmly’," recalls Dmytro. “And, in the end, we see what it led to. Only thanks to the Armed Forces, thanks to the volunteers, the worst did not happen.”
For a year and a half, Dmytro and his comrades joined a lot of training with the local Territorial Defense battalion, although they gained real combat experience on February 24 on the outskirts of the city.
“Before that, we had already defended Northern Saltivka for three days. But the first close combat took place right here. Such that you saw the enemy, one might say, eye to eye.” Dmytro points with his hand at the broken walls of the school.
Eight defenders departed for the task. They found themselves at the intersection of Shevchenko and Gerasimovska streets at nine in the morning. The 92nd Mechanized Brigade and KORD [Rapid Operational Response Unit] had already been fighting the russians for over an hour.
The school was surrounded from all sides by defense forces, but the Ukrainian defenders did not dare enter the building as the russians controlled all approaches with fire.
As the most experienced of the reservists, Dmytro took command of the Territorial Defense detachment.
“There was no overall coordination as such,” says Dmytro when asked about who commanded the entire operation. “Everything happened situationally. In battle, everything is decided in a fraction of a second. You either act and win, or you die. I realized that I had to act quickly. I took over the right flank, and our group, it turns out, marched under my command. We and KORD entered from the back door.”
It was pointless to attack the school from the main entrance. The street was under fire. Previous attempts to attack head-on had already cost the Ukrainian military dearly as Dmytro tells about two seriously wounded soldiers whom he and his boys pulled out of the line of fire.
The enemy fired heavily from the windows of the school, trying to suppress the Ukrainian fighters from entering the building. Russian special forces clearly did not lack ammunition.
“We passed through a neighborhood, hiding behind fences.” Dmytro leads us through a playground in the school yard along the route that his group took that morning.
“Then an armored personnel carrier of the 92nd Brigade broke through the fence, and the boys and I, under fire cover, approached the school through the stadium.
Dmytro and his team managed to enter the building through the back door and engage the russians in close combat. Because the territorial defenders drew the enemy's fire, the KORD fighters, the Fraykor volunteers and the Ataman Sirk brigade were able to enter the building from different sides.
The Russians had no choice but to ascend to the second floor. But the Ukrainian defenders were not going to stop. The fierce battle for the second floor lasted for about three hours.
“We tried to convince them to surrender. But they responded, ‘No one here will surrender to Khokhols!’,” Oliynyk recalls with a smile.
It seems that the Russians expected a completely different reception from the people of Kharkiv. The large Rosgvard columns that followed the advanced units were immediately overwhelmed on the approach to the oblast capital, indicating that the Russian generals did not count on serious organized resistance.
According to enemy plans, special forces mobile units were to take control of the city followed by Rosgvard units that were to begin filtering and eliminating dissenters.
But the Russian military leadership clearly underestimated the readiness of Kharkiv residents to fight for their country.
In the first days of the war, at least 5,000 residents of Kharkiv lined up for weapons and joined various units. They immediately went to combat positions around the city.
What’s more, as the defenders themselves say, there were so many willing to join the battle against the russians, that they had to compete for missions. All russian units that managed to break into the city were surrounded and destroyed by the defenders.
“All the boys were volunteers. And everyone was ready to stand to the death to save the city,” explains Dmytro about his brothers-in-arms. He admits that the battle against the professional russian military was not an easy task for defenders who were managers and construction workers only yesterday.
"This is where we entered." We follow Oliynyk into the building through the fire exit. Dmytro looks a little excited, admitting that it's the first time he's been inside since that day.
The building is black and empty inside. All the ceilings burned and caved in. Only the walls are standing. Without ceilings, they look high, like a Gothic cathedral.
The floor is buried under a meter and a half of blackened debris that was once the ceilings and roof. Many generations of Kharkiv students studied under this roof. The concrete stairs to the right are tilting, but still standing.
Dmytro points to the stairs. "This is the entrance we were holding. The russians were already on the second floor, throwing down grenades at us as we tried to go up.”
“This was their most daring operation. They broke through in groups and tried to gain a foothold or connect with others. And here, they were the last, largest groups trying to break into the city.”
After that, not a single russian unit entered Kharkiv. The days from the 24th to the 27th turned out to be decisive.
We walk with Oliynyk along the blackened corridor to the opposite wing, to the stairs that he and his fellow defenders used that day to finally summit the building.
It is difficult for Dmytro to walk on the piles of charred bricks - he limps. In that battle, he received a serious injury when a russian grenade fragment shattered his thigh. He almost lost his leg, and even long treatments in Germany did not help him fully recover.
Dmytro came out of that fight crippled, but victorious. And the power of awareness of duty fulfilled bursts in his every phrase and smile.
On the way, Dmytro talks about the enemy with whom fate brought together.
“There were about 30 russians here, a platoon. And they didn't have anyone below the rank of lieutenant. All were officers.”
They were well-armed with "thread cutters", modernized AKs and grenade launchers. The Russians threw grenades and put up streamers as they abandoned a floor. They did not spare grenades and cartridges, they had no problems with ammunition.
The Kharkiv Territorial Defense forces were equipped much more modestly – with only machine guns. There were no grenades. Instead, the boys brought a box of Molotov cocktails, but there was no way to use them in such a battle.
“We didn't have any problems with cartridges either,” Dmytro recalls. “But, as it turned out, everything depends – not on ammunition and weapons – but on the spirit. A person can be a soldier all his life, and at a certain moment just give up.”
“It happened that we decided to enter the building, and one of the soldiers said, ‘We are not ready for this. We simply will not go, periodl.’ And we said, ‘Okay, we're going in. Will you go with us?’ ‘We’ll see,’ he replied. Well, then you just go.”
The battle for the second floor lasted three hours. The russians cut off the attacks of the Kharkiv defenders with automatic volleys and threw grenades down the stairs.
Finally, the russian special forces retreated to the third floor and for the next few hours defended it even more fiercely than the second floor. They had no way of retreat nor could expect reinforcements soon.
“On our side, there were about sixty people. Both the police and Fraykor stepped up. But the main force was the 92nd.”
As in most Kharkiv Oblast battles, the Ataman Sirk brigade also played a key role. Their armored personnel carriers supported the assault with fire. And when the Russians managed to hit one of the Ukrainian armored personnel carriers, a tank moved into firing position. It's shot convinced the Russians to leave the third floor.
“When the tank arrived, we had to leave the building. After it fired, we entered again. And I still can't understand whether it helped us or not. Because when you come in and already control the situation - it's the moment. And when you have to leave the building, then enter again, everything repeats itself...But, honestly, after that shot it was easier for us to ascend. It caused the russians to go to the roof. We gained full control of the third floor.”
In the moment before the tank shot, three russian soldiers tried to escape.
“When we withdrew, three of them threw their equipment, walkie-talkies, weapons and uniforms down and tried to run away. But they were intercepted by the boys from the 92nd, it seems. Two were eliminated, one was detained.”
With a limp, Dmytro leads us up the stairs to the attic entrance. Everything looks as if the last flight was the most difficult. The walls are abundantly pockmarked with bullet holes.
“It was difficult to take them out. Defending is easier than storming. This is where they threw a grenade down at us,” Dmytro demonstrates how it happened. He stretches out his hand and spreads his fingers. “Several times, they threw bricks instead of grenades. And when you think a grenade has landed, you fly into a side room as if scalded.”
No one ever came to the aid of the russian vanguard. Trapped in the attic, the occupants looked for ways to escape.
“When we climbed to the third floor, we heard them calling for artillery fire support,” explains Dmytro. “Then they finally understood that there would be no reinforcements. They had hoped that shelling would enable them to escape. But, in fact, they were abandoned.”
The russians did not wait for artillery support. In the evening, the wooden floor on the third floor caught fire from the shots and explosions. Territorial defenders tried to put out the fire, but it was difficult during the battle. The fire began to spread rapidly through the old building. In the end, this decided the fate of the russian special forces.
“The school had started to burn,” says Oliynyk. “Part of it burned down. And the remnants of their unit, reduced from from dozens, began to throw themselves out of the windows. Everyone was eliminated. Only two survived. They were captured and then handed over to the police.”
“Such a finale,” he says as he spreads his arms. “Well, they chose it themselves. We offered them a chance to surrender.”
We go to the field behind the school and Oliynyk shows us the place where the last enemy special forces were eliminated.
Dmytro jokes that, looking into the confused eyes of the prisoners, he realized that the russians did not expect such a "hot" reception at all. "They were in silent shock, in deep shock."
Children playing on the school sports field see Dmytro in military uniform and shout, "Glory to Ukraine!". He responds with, "Glory to heroes!" and shares his thoughts with us. "Of course, this is, to a large extent, popular. But it's also good that it has become popular."
We agree. It’s popular because of people like him and the guys in his unit.
It so happened that the first battle for the Kharkiv Territorial Defense was extremely difficult. It lasted all day, the unit suffered losses.
Dmytro knows of at least six city defenders who died from russian bullets. But it is thanks to them that Kharkiv is now called the unconquerable city of reinforced concrete.
We ask Dmytro what the fight meant for him.
“The realization that you were ready,” he answers, “That you did not back down at the moment when the country needed you. All of us understood what we were signing up for. You don't want to just sit and watch your city being torn apart. If Kharkiv was lost, it seemed to me, other regions would also fall.”
Our conversation is interrupted by a girl and a lady. They come to personally thank Dmytro. They read about him in "Hromadske". The girl is one of the graduates who danced a waltz on the ruins of her school in a video that went viral in June. The lady is her mom.
They live nearby and also remember that winter day, minute by minute. They say that they were scared, but they are infinitely grateful to each of the guys who did not allow the Russians to capture their city. Several generations of their family studied at the ruined school including the girl's great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and aunt, herself and her younger sister.
“Don't you resent the boys for what happened to your school?”, we ask them.
“Absolutely not!”, they answer. “If it weren’t for these guys, Kharkiv wouldn't exist. So, we are grateful.”
They ask to take a picture with Dmytro and invite him to come to their repair shop for free services for defenders.
“They say that the elite are businessmen and philanthropists.” Dmytro shares his thoughts as we walk with him to the car. “In fact, the real elite are those guys who went to defend their city without a second thought. I think that a person should be measured by his devotion to his country, his people. And not by the amount of money or some projects financed.” . Before saying goodbye, he takes one more look at the crippled building.
“It's a shame. The school was just built before the war. This is what ‘russian world’ brings - devastation, crippled destinies, destroyed lives. Well, never mind. Everything will be rebuilt. The main thing is to remember the acts of every military guy, every volunteer. To remember the price of peace for the people. The price of our future.”
Authors: Kostyantyn Ryeutsky, Oleksiy Bratuschak