In Ukraine’s strategic rail town of Kupyansk, there’s defiance, but creeping fear of a new Russian occupation


Kupyansk, Ukraine — Among the shell-shocked front-line cities of eastern Ukraine, the strategic rail hub of Kupyansk has endured about as much time occupied by Russian forces as it has since it was liberated — roughly seven months each during Vladimir Putin’s assault on the country. Kupyansk is in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, which has been both diminished and demolished during 14 months of war. More than 80% of its residents have fled, and the scars of Russia’s relentless shelling pockmark roads and apartment buildings.

“Neither Kupyansk nor the towns around Kupyansk will ever be occupied by Russia again,” the town’s defiant Mayor Andriy Besedin told CBS News. “They won’t come back here, for sure.” 

Russia’s invading forces, however, do not appear to have received the mayor’s message. They’ve advanced to within less than six miles of the town, lying in wait just over the eastern horizon.

A map shows the location of the city of Kupyansk, a rail hub in eastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv region.

CBS News

During our visit to the battered region, the airy whoosh of Russian artillery and the booms of Ukrainian forces firing their rockets in reply echoed across the skies above us every several minutes. The silence after each launch leaves people on the ground to wonder anxiously where and when the next shell will fall. 

“Kupyansk does have great rail links that connect Russia and Ukraine,” explained Besedin. “For the occupiers — for the terrorist state of Russia — Kupyansk has logistical significance in terms of delivering cargo and ammunition onto our territory.” 

Almost 20 rail lines intersect in the town. About half lead further into the country, while the other half track straight into Russia.

Before Moscow launched its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, many Kupyansk residents would head into Russia to work in better paying jobs, said Besedin.

The tracks have fallen largely quiet during the war, but if Russian forces do manage to recapture Kupyansk, the town could serve as a vital logistics hub for Putin’s troops to push further west into Ukraine. The people in the town know that if Russia moves to retake Kupyansk, it will be another bloody battle in a war which, by most counts, has already cost well over 100,000 lives.

A heavily damaged street in the previously occupied eastern Ukrainian city of Kupyansk, about six miles from the front line and Russia’s invading forces, is seen in the spring of 2023.

CBS News

“If Kupyansk will be taken by our enemy again, it won’t be just an occupation, we’ll all be killed,” said Vadym Kyyachko, regional chief for the State Emergency Service of Ukraine. “It won’t be like the first time when we were just occupied.” 

Forced to be on alert every hour of every day, Kyachko and his team rush in after each Russian attack to put out fires and pull people from rubble. He admits he’s tired. Several of his colleagues have been injured by Russian shelling, but none of them have been killed, yet. 

The day we met Kyachko, he and his team were silently scanning a grassy lawn on the grounds of a college for unexploded Russian ordnance. 

An academic building on the grounds of a college in Kupyansk, Ukraine, heavily damaged by Russian S-300 missile in January, is seen in the spring of 2023.

CBS News

A Russian S-300 missile left a gaping hole in one of the academic buildings in January. With reconstruction seen as foolhardy given the proximity of Russian forces and artillery, we saw the windows and doors still blown out, and we walked over shattered glass that crunched underfoot. 

“There are no days when we are not shelled. There’s almost nothing left in the villages beyond us,” Kyyachko said. “There is no day or night. It’s all the same. We’ve gotten used to it.”

Anatoliy Kozar, a 70-year-old farmer, doesn’t even flinch at the sound of the artillery fire. With a shock of white hair and bags under his eyes, he lives even closer to the front line than the people in the center of Kupyansk — less than three miles from Russian-claimed territory in the farming community of Petropavlivka.

He welcomed our team to film his obliterated 12,000-acre farm. Wisps of smoke rose up from scattered piles of smoldering grain at the entrance to his farm. 

“We don’t have anything that is not destroyed,” Kozar told us. “No wheat, no corn, no pigs. Nothing left. No equipment, no warehouses.”

A Russian rocket hit one of his buildings just three days before we were there. Kozar said he’d grown accustomed to near-death experiences. 

“My office was there, and a missile landed exactly into my chair,” he told us, pointing to the second floor of another heavily damaged building. “Thankfully I wasn’t there, nor any of my co-workers.”

Anatoliy Kozar, 70, speaks with CBS News on his destroyed farm complex on the outskirts of Kupyansk, eastern Ukraine, in March 2023.

CBS News

But Kozar refuses to leave his land.

“I am over 70 years old, and to run somewhere — run away? I built all of this with my hands over the years. There have been moments when I’ve been standing here and a missile is flying over me and I think ‘so what.'”

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