Cross-Border Fighting Raises Anxiety for Ukrainian Villagers

The forest around Vovchansk was ablaze, white smoke drifting through the pine trees and billowing over the treetops where artillery shells had begun to flash.

Vovchansk and other towns and villages along Ukraine's northeastern border with Russia have been living under Russian fire across the border for months. But in the past five days, the offensive exploded with sudden intensity after groups of exiled Russian fighters — allied with Ukraine against the Russian government — attacked several settlements inside Russia, and Russian troops responded in force.

In the southeast, Ukraine's leaders faced unfolding disaster on Wednesday, as surging water from a destroyed dam on the Dnipro River forced thousands of people to evacuate. But near the northern border, anxiety centers on continued cross-border hostilities, with both sides exchanging heavy artillery shells this week.

Vovchansk, two and a half miles from the Russian border, is mostly a ghost town. There were few cars on the road except military and police vehicles. Nearly 1,000 people remained after months of shelling that damaged many residential homes and central buildings, and most were hiding indoors.

“In these four days, we didn't understand what was going on,” said Iryna, who lives in the city with her two daughters and six dogs. “Drones fly all the time.” Like many civilians in the frontline areas of Ukraine, his last name is withheld for security reasons.

As he spoke, the deep rumble of exploding artillery shells rang out at the edge of the city, followed by several sharp replies from the shelling artillery.

His daughter, who recently returned from Russia, was used to the shootings, he said. They have cared for a growing pool of dogs they took in after being abandoned by neighbors who had moved in.

In Vovchansk, Ukrainian officials declined to comment on recent military operations. But they say Ukraine needs to push Russian troops away from the border to reduce fire over the wider area – showing tacit support.

“They are terrorizing the people,” said Tamaz Gambarashvili, head of the civil-military administration in Vovchansk.

The town was occupied by Russian troops for seven months and then, after a sweeping Ukrainian counteroffensive in September forced the Russians to withdraw, residents endured a dreary winter. Russia launches daily barrages of artillery and mortar fire as part of its winter offensive across eastern Ukraine.

The final battle cut off electricity and telephone lines, adding to the community's hardships. Local authorities focused on providing food and other supplies, including building materials for damaged houses, to the remaining population.

Two villages located closer to the border than Vovchansk were nearly abandoned, the police chief said. There were only two residents left in one of the villages.

The head of the local education office, Lyudmila Madiani, said her party was providing online classes for 600 children still in the district, but had to suspend them last week because the internet was cut off. Only four of the district's 21 schools survived the war without damage, he said.

The attacks on the Russian towns of Shebekino and Novaya Tavolzhanka led to the evacuation of several thousand residents in the area and pushed Russian troops back from the border so that close-range mortar teams were no longer active, Gambarashvili said.

“Now it's not just us who are suffering,” he said. “We hear they are also suffering.”

Two anti-Kremlin groups, the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Free Russian Legion, have claimed responsibility for several attacks on the border in recent weeks and has created a storm of publicity. They have filmed and distributed videos to announce their presence.

Their main goal is to create a diversion and pull Russian troops away from the battlefield in Ukraine, as well as to start creating a demilitarized buffer zone along the border, Aleksandr Fortuna, chief of staff of the Russian Volunteer Corps, said in an interview via Zoom on Tuesday. He said the military operation was still continuing, and his fighters managed to capture part of the town of Shebekino.

Russian military bloggers criticized Russia's withdrawal from border towns in Ukraine, saying continued control over settlements would protect against recent attacks. Ukrainian officials say it would be best if Russian troops were pushed back further from the border and a buffer zone inside Russia was established.

“There is only one solution: a 100-kilometer demilitarized zone,” said Maksym Stetsyna, the burly police chief, who wore body armor and a baseball cap.

Wandering around town, Oleksiy Kharkivsky, head of the patrol police, pointed out a house that was still smoldering; shells had hit it over the weekend and burned it. He said he went to each shooting location to check on victims.

“We are usually the first on the scene,” he said. “We got a call, put on our body armor and left.”

Incendiary munitions set fire to houses in a residential district Sunday morning, and two grandmothers were killed in an artillery attack around the same time, said Ihor Kharchenko, head of investigations for the Vovchansk regional police.

“Last week, they fired with all they had,” he said of Russia. “They fired artillery and incendiary bombs. They have multiple rocket launcher systems like we have and sometimes a tank appears and fires and then comes back and hides.”

A multiple launch rocket system hidden in the countryside on the outskirts of Vovchansk roared as he spoke, sending some 40 rockets toward Russia. “That's our artillery coming out,” he said.

Although the anti-Kremlin group, which is made up of Russians, has claimed responsibility for the attack inside Russia, there are signs that Ukrainian troops were also part of the attack, including long-range artillery. During a several-hour visit to Vovchansk on Monday, there appeared to be more Ukrainian artillery fire coming in than Russian artillery fire. Pak Fortuna said the equipment and weapons belonged to his troops.

Iryna, a mother of two, said she was worried about the increase in armament and the Ukrainian troops who had arrived in the city. One group had parked under a tree across the street, he said.

“The border is very close,” said Iryna. “We know when our people attack them, we wait for the answer.”