KHARKIV – As the small convoy of journalists rounded a bend outside Kharkiv, two dark-green Ukrainian howitzers could be seen on a hill, etched against the warm blue May sky.
A little while later, they vanished, likely moved to another location to continue the ongoing artillery battle against the Russians near Ukraine’s second-largest city just 25 kilometers away from the Russian border.
The rural idyll was occasionally shattered by the repeated whoosh of Ukrainian Multiple-Launch Rocket Systems firing away at Russian positions in the distance, flames shooting off into the sky.
Russian forces have lost ground near Kharkiv as the Ukrainian counterattack pushes them from the villages around it. Eight towns and villages were freed as of May 6, according to Tetiana Apatchenko, a press officer with the 92nd separate mechanized brigade. Since then, Ukrainian forces have continued their liberation drive in the area.
Apatchenko said that Russian attempts to retake these territories have been unsuccessful.
“It’s a Chornobaivka scenario,” said Mykhailo, a Ukrainian soldier, standing east of the Mala Rohan village, which was liberated over a month ago. He was not authorized to give his full name. “They’re attacking us but it’s not working out.”
He was referring to the Russian forces’ attempt to hold the Kherson International Airport at Chornobaivka in Kherson Oblast, while the Ukrainian armed forces inflicted 18 successful attacks against it, reportedly killing two Russian generals.
“There were moments when our artillery struck with a jeweler’s precision,” said Mykhailo.
Artillery battles are the name of the game outside Kharkiv. Here, indirect fire is the main method of engagement as Ukrainian forces push their enemies out of their positions around the city.
Ukraine’s top commander, Valeriy Zaluzhniy, said on May 5 that Ukrainian forces transitioned to counteroffensive operations around Kharkiv and Izium, another critical city in Kharkiv Oblast that sits in the middle of a major attack axis against the Donbas region.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank, the Ukrainian counteroffensive around Kharkiv may force the Russians to call up reinforcements or risk losing positions within artillery range of the city.
“This Ukrainian operation is developing into a successful, broader counteroffensive—as opposed to the more localized counterattacks that Ukrainian forces have conducted throughout the war to secure key terrain and disrupt Russian offensive operations,” the Institute wrote in its analysis.
It went on to say that Ukrainian forces are retaking territory along a broad arc around the city, as opposed to a focused thrust. The ISW believes this indicates an ability to launch larger-scale offensives than what’s been observed in the war so far.
Kharkiv needs the relief. The city’s been pounded mercilessly since the war began, including by cluster munitions. More than 1,600 high-rise apartment buildings have been destroyed or damaged, along with dozens of historical structures. The latest May 7 attack destroyed a building of the National Museum named after philosopher Hryhory Skovoroda.
Despite being pushed back by the recent counter-offensive, Russia forces continue to strike Kharkiv and its outlying areas. Olena Shapoval, the regional government spokeswoman, told the Kyiv Independent that lately, the city has been struck by artillery and mortars, not rockets.
Oleh Synehuybov, the head of the Kharkiv Oblast regional government, wrote on his Telegram channel that Russian strikes against Kharkiv are “not targeted” which means “there can be an incoming (strike) in any district, in any courtyard, on any playground.”
However, Oleksandr, a native of the town of Bezruky north of the city, said that earlier in the war, the Russians were more accurate. In his town, Russians specifically targeted volunteers who helped others – precision-destroying four homes belonging to such people, he said. Oleksandr declined to give his last name for security reasons.
In the meantime, Russian attacks continue to hurt and kill people not just in Kharkiv but all over the region.
On May 5, city authorities relayed that a 15-year-old volunteer was killed when Russians shelled the Feldman Eco Park near Kharkiv. The boy was helping evacuate the animals from the park’s zoo.
People who live closer to the borders of Donetsk Oblast are in even greater danger due to the intensified fighting there. Hennadiy Troynyak, a boiler operator, stepped outside his house to go to work in the morning, when a shell flattened his house and blasted a fragment through his chest and side, leaving an exit wound. He is now recovering from surgery in Kharkiv, where he spoke to the Kyiv Independent.
Lyubov Zlobina, who owns a farm in Mala Rohan, said she lost 140 animals, including pigs, sheep and calves in the shelling during the war. At one point, a projectile ignited one of the farm buildings, causing some animals to burn.
She added that the Russians would shoot at her vehicle as she tried to make food supply runs for local residents, toying with her “like a cat with a mouse.”
“They would come by, saying ‘and how are you this morning?’” she recalled.
“I said ‘well, we’re driving and you’re shooting at us.’ And they said ‘sooner or later, they’ll get you.’”