Ukraine has blocked Russia near the border. Vovchansk paid the price.

A month into Russia's push across the border into northern Ukraine, Western weapons and Ukrainian reinforcements have largely blocked the attack. But they arrived too late to save one city, Vovchansk, where the town hall, a cultural center, countless apartment buildings and several riverside hotels are now in ruins.

A small town divided by the Vovcha River, Vovchansk was once a regional tourist attraction, a pleasant base from which to explore the nearby chalk hills. But it is also three miles from the Russian border, and when Russia began a cross-border offensive on May 10, it became the defensive position of Ukrainian forces.

The front line still runs through Vovchansk, about 70% of which remains under Ukrainian control. And a month of fierce fighting and relentless bombing by Russia has decimated the city, forcing nearly everyone left to flee.

“My little, quiet town, full of trees and lots of flowers! It was drowning in greenery,” said Tetyana Polyakova, a former resident, in an interview last week. She described how fires had burned the forest and the city's buildings had become shells, with black fire marks on what remained of their walls. Huge clouds of smoke rose after each strike, enveloping his house and the rest of the city.

“There is no more Vovchansk,” he said.

The Russian attack in the north has raised concerns in Ukraine and its Western allies that a breakthrough could endanger Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city. The new front, in addition to extending Ukrainian troops, threatened to reoccupy territories in the region that Russia had already held for a few months in 2022.

As bombs and missiles rained down on Kharkiv and the region, an average of 20 Russian glide bombs – large air-guided attacks – fell on Vovchansk every day.

The Ukrainian army urgently reinforced the area with more brigades, and the United States, following most of Ukraine's European allies, lifted a ban on Ukraine using American weapons to fire on Russian territory.

Justifying the decision in an interview with CBS News on Sunday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Russia was “moving from one side of the border straight to the other side and it just didn't make sense do not do it”. to allow the Ukrainians to shoot.”

The Ukrainian military quickly took advantage of the change, using additional artillery to help block the Russian offensive. “Now, Kharkiv is still under threat, but the Russians have not been able to make any real progress on the ground in recent days in that area,” Sullivan said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also called the defensive operation a success. “The Russian army failed to carry out the operation in Kharkiv,” he said in his daily video address on Saturday.

On Monday, Lieutenant Denys Yaroslavsky, commander of the Ukrainian 57th Brigade's reconnaissance battalion, deployed near Vovchansk, said the Russians were still shelling the city but making no progress toward capturing it.

“We now have complete control over the enemy's logistics,” he said in a telephone interview. “They continue to try to enter Vovchansk in small groups, but this will not change the situation.”

It has always been believed that the scope of Russia's northern offensive was limited; they lacked the troop numbers to reach Kharkiv. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has said the goal is to create a buffer zone along the border.

But Russia appears to have failed to achieve even more limited goals, according to Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an expert on the Russian military and modern warfare, who said: “They haven't made as much progress as perhaps they could have. “

Lee said this may have been the result of heavy equipment losses suffered by Russia this year in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, when its forces took the town of Avdiivka and then some villages to the west. At the same time, Ukrainian forces have been strengthened by the much-delayed arrival of new weapons and ammunition from the West.

Most experts assessed that Russia's main goal in opening the northern front was to stretch Ukrainian forces, drawing some of them away from the Donbas region and weakening Ukrainian defenses there.

But while some Ukrainian forces have indeed been sent north, Russia has so far not taken advantage of their absence from the Donbas region to gain new ground.

“Instead, we are also seeing Russia moving forces from Donbas to Kharkiv, which is a bit of a strange thing to do,” Lee said.

However, Russia overall seized the advantage in the war, taking advantage of the severe lack of ammunition and depleted troops hindering Ukraine. In the north, in Donbass and in the southern regions near Zaporizhzhia, it is Russia that advances, albeit slowly, while Ukraine entrenches itself.

Vovchansk, which had about 17,000 residents before the full-scale war, is the latest victim of the chaos. It was placed on the list of Ukrainian cities reduced to rubble, although its destruction did not significantly shift the military balance along the front.

“It took us three weeks to do in Vovchansk what it took us a year to do in Bakhmut,” said Valerii, a junior sergeant in the 57th Brigade's reconnaissance battalion that goes by the name Fregat. He said he fought in Bakhmut, a bitterly contested city in Donbass, for a year before it finally fell to Russia in May 2023.

“For three years of war I have been in many places, everywhere the Russians have similar tactics, they are destroying entire cities and villages,” said Lieutenant Colonel Oleksandr Bukatar of the Ukrainian National Guard, which is fighting in the northern Kharkiv region. . “They make ruins to show success.”

The people of Vovchansk had already survived two winters without heat or running water, after the damage of previous battles. They looked for wells around the city and marked them to let others know where they could get water.

Many of those who remained volunteered to distribute humanitarian aid to the less able; a high percentage of the remaining residents were elderly. They often relied on hot meals provided by World Central Kitchen, a humanitarian organization.

The city was bombed regularly even before May 10th. Those who remained despite the dangers and hardships were determined not to abandon their homes. Only now they have been forced to do so, as those homes have been destroyed.

Ms. Polyakova, 53, has not evacuated for more than two years of war. That changed last month when “hell began,” she said.

The city's community center, a large yellow building where volunteers gathered to receive and distribute aid, was destroyed by bombing. Ms. Polyakova worked in the Vovchansk House of Culture as a director of theatrical events. That building was also destroyed.

“Yesterday they bombed my apartment,” he said in an interview from Kharkiv, where he lives in a dormitory for displaced civilians. “Now I have nowhere to return: my entire district is completely destroyed.”

The location of the front line, which cuts through the center of Vovchansk, only aggravated the damage.

The battle continues, but the front does not move.

“We hold our positions and no one retreats,” said Oleksandr, the drone operator of the 57th Brigade's reconnaissance battalion. The massive use of drones has made it difficult for both sides to advance.

“It reminds me of World War I, the Western Front in Europe, when both sides found it very difficult to attack,” said Ben Barry, senior research fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Every day Ms. Polyakova monitors Ukrainian soldiers' channels on the social media app Telegram, looking for videos of her destroyed city. That's how she knows a bomb hit the roof of her apartment building on June 4. “I loved this city, everyone loved it,” she said. “It seems I can't just let it go.”

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