March 29, 2023

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Huliapole in southern Ukraine is preparing a “decisive” counterattack on Russian forces

HULYAIPOL, Ukraine — The crack of shellfire has long since replaced the hum of traffic on the streets of Huliaipol, a historic farming town on Ukraine’s front line.

On a February morning, blanketed by the first snow of the year, the only sound in the nearly deserted streets is the whine of tires on fresh snow.

“Nobody knows why,” said the city’s mayor, Serhiy Yermak, 42, as he stood near the huge crater left by a Russian missile strike that killed his deputy in October. The Russians stopped firing two days ago. “Maybe the Russians are rotating their forces.”

The town’s nearly year-long ordeal of Russian bombing shows what’s at stake for Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive, which is likely to take place nowhere near the media report.

Western tanks – the first batch of which were delivered to Ukraine about two weeks ago – are likely to be key to the offensive. While they have not yet been seen in action, Ukrainian forces are busy an exercise them in preparation. If Ukraine succeeds in breaking the Russian lines, the town can finally recover from one of the longest periods of sustained bombing in Ukraine. If it fails, the town, already in tatters, will face further disintegration under Russian fire.

While Ukraine has been tight-lipped about where its next direction might be, experts said southern Ukraine is a key target. “The south is where the offensive could be most decisive,” John Herbst, now the former US ambassador to Ukraine at the Atlantic Council, told The Daily Beast. Herbst added that launching a counterattack there would cut off the Russian land route to occupied Crimea, and perhaps pave the way for Russian forces there to “wither on the vine.”

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US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that the counterattack will take place this spring, without specifying where such an attack could take place.

Not so long ago, Mayor Yermak was at work in a blue suit and white shirt. He first entered city administration in 2006, and in 2017 he was elected mayor, presiding over the mundane chores of building parks, rebuilding schools and removing rubbish.

Huliaipole, founded in 1777, is a small town clustered around historic brick buildings in the center, including a 113-year-old synagogue. It is famous throughout Ukraine as the base of Nestor Makhenko, the military leader who used the chaos following the end of World War I to establish one of the only anarchist states ever to exist.

Huliaipole’s ordeal began almost immediately after Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year. Two days later, the Ukrainian media mentioned Power to the town was cut off by the bombing, and on 5 March Russian forces briefly entered Holypool. The front line eventually settled just outside the city, with the nearest Russian positions less than two miles away.

Avhustyna Psevdaklyayeva (left) and a neighbor.

Sam Skoff

“Be afraid of hell, and the man from the city of Makhno.”

Ermak’s first task at the start of the war was to evacuate the city. About 12,000 residents eventually left the town, some on school buses provided by the city. There are still about 3,000 mostly elderly residents. Despite Yermak’s dismay, at least 93 children remain in the city.

Then he had to learn how to run a city in wartime. “Not a single thing” prepared me for the war, he said, reflecting on the 16 years he spent running the city. The municipality’s tasks are still ongoing. The hospital is functioning, though its patients are being treated in the basement. Police still patrol, whose main task is to prevent looting and prevent soldiers from buying alcohol. The city still sorts out the trash, but the garbage collectors now wear body armor and helmets.

Yermak himself abandoned his suit for camouflage and body armor. The patch on the camouflage uniform now favored by Yermak is a tribute to Makhno: “Be afraid of hell, and the man from the city of Makhno.”

The town’s residents have been living without electricity, water and heat since March. In one of the seven-storey Soviet-built buildings in the city, Avustina Psevdaklyaeva, 67, and Lyudmila Guvnerenko, 52, live with five others in a cramped, cold apartment. “It’s very cold,” said Psevdaklyaeva. Psevdaklyayeva is staying there due to moving expenses on her small pension.

There is not much to do other than cook and take care of the cats and dogs that live there too. Psevdaklieva said that the residents sit at the same table at night and remember what happened. “Everyone talks about their memories, so the time goes by a little bit faster,” she told The Daily Beast.

Thrown into the war together, they are now friends. On one wall hung a Ukrainian flag with their names signed, in memory of their still-ongoing plight. Not all relationships survived the war. “The war showed who he was,” said Guvnerenko. The two women said they keep an eye on looters who visit the area, and question any unknown faces.

Until January 13, Psevdaklyaeva’s husband also lived there. He had a heart attack and passed out, but when they called the hospital, they advised to come on foot. They called the mayor, who persuaded the hospital to send an ambulance. It was too late, and her husband died.

All of Ukraine is serious.

On a drive around the city after Psevdakliaeva and Guvnirenko leave, it is evident that the city is gradually disintegrating. The city’s former cultural center, a huge concrete building, was completely destroyed. In the center of town, snowdrifts drifted through the shell holes of stately old brick buildings.

As terrible as the situation is, it could get worse if one day Russia launches a sustained offensive. If that happens, the city will likely resemble other devastated communities across Ukraine that have experienced street fighting, such as solidarOr Izyum or Busha.

Such an attack is unlikely in the near term, according to the US think tank the Institute for the Study of War mentioned in December. Despite this, city officials spoke of an intensification of bombing in December and January.

“We are all with our counterattack soon,” Yermak said. “To tell you from a national point of view, of course we are not afraid. But of course everyone is worried.”

Mayor Serhi Yermak (left)

Sam Skoff

Several miles down the road from Huliaipole, Alina Kovaleva, 37, and her 5-year-old son Gordy were celebrating the first day of snow the way many families might: They made a snowman.

Standing about 3 feet tall and with a carrot in his nose, the snowman stood as Gordy, giggling furiously, threw bigger and bigger snowballs at Alena, both of whom were wearing heavy winter coats.

Kovaleva said that Russian shells hit her village from time to time. When there is bombing at night, she and her husband take their three children into the cellar.

However, she wasn’t thinking of moving. “All Ukraine is serious,” she shrugs to The Daily Beast, returning to a snowball fight with her son.