Reportage. Pro-Ukrainian Russian partisans move the front line eastward, and Moscow's troops struggle to push it back. Artillery shots, columns of smoke rising in the forest, and occasionally a cry: ‘Drone!’

The invisible frontier of war where conflicts intertwine

A sign, a deserted checkpoint and plumes of smoke on the horizon. We are close to the Ukrainian-Russian border: it used to be 3 km away, but now, looking in its direction, we can glimpse the white plumes of shells just exploded. “How come there’s no one at the checkpoint?” we ask the policeman accompanying us. “Because the border isn’t here anymore, the Russian ‘partisans’ moved it further east,” he replies with a laugh.

The officer is talking about the RDK and the Freedom for Russia Legion. Almost everyone here, both officials and soldiers, call them ‘partisans,’ but beside admitting they exist no one is willing to say anything more. It’s clear that an order has come from above forbidding Ukrainians to talk about the operations across the border.

“It’s their fight, they’ve decided to do that,” explains Tamaz Gambarashvili, the mayor of Vovchansk, whom we interviewed on a beautiful sunny morning as artillery blasts provided a faraway counterpoint to his words, delivered with the tone and power of an opera baritone. “We take care of the Ukrainian population and the administration on our territory, nothing else.”

But don’t they fear that Russian troops will retaliate against the battalions of pro-Ukrainian Russians and come in to attack again? “Vovchansk was occupied almost immediately after the invasion. There was the idea that ‘everyone in Kharkiv is pro-Russian anyway,’ those were very hard months – but then, on September 11, it was liberated and now it’s permanently under the control of our troops.”

When we ask him about these so-called “pro-Russians,” who clearly had to have been there (and, to a lesser extent, must still be), he tells us that “they moved to Russian territory when the Moscow army withdrew along with the previous city administration.”

This is a common story in Ukraine, which we’ve heard in a number of occupied cities that were then recaptured. Rather than face being put on trial and bear the stigma of “collaborationists,” many figures in the occupying administration tend to flee when Kyiv’s troops are at the gates.

There’s a strange calm in the streets. During this season, the Ukrainian-Russian border area is green as far as the eye can see. Tall, skinny pines line both sides of the road, there’s no internet or phone signal, and every so often the roar of a howitzer shell rattles the forest. In the local area, the salvoes are all outgoing, not incoming, at least today. “Let’s hope it continues like this,” says Vovchansk hospital chief Tyshchenko Kostyantyn, tapping noisily on the wood of his desk.

He is a man with lumberjack arms, six feet tall, balding and with many nervous tics. As he speaks to us, he’s signing documents in fine handwriting with a fountain pen he’s holding like a toothpick in his large hands. We ask him if there are many soldiers coming through his hospital; he replies that this is classified information. “But after the operations in Belgorod, the wounded will probably need to go somewhere, and this clinic…” we say.

“What’s the purpose of asking this question?” he asks us sternly, his small black eyes darting back and forth. “This is a hospital, it was built 150 years ago and everyone has come through here: from Czarist soldiers to Soviets, even Nazis. Everyone has been treated here and they all respected this place – everyone except our ‘brothers.’” He interrupts the arabesque signature he was composing and stares at us intently. “Come and see what our Russian ‘brothers’ did to this hospital. We are ‘the same people,’ right?”

Some tell us that this imposing man was the one who hoisted the first Ukrainian flag, right on the roof of the hospital, as the Russians left the city. He runs the polyclinic with the authoritative air of a general, and he looks to be wearing the attire of one under his bulletproof vest. He stands up and holds out his big hand to indicate that the interview is over, then loudly calls out to a woman and has us accompany her to see all the damage caused by bombing. “This one was on April 18, this one was the day before yesterday,” Mrs. Anna, as everyone calls her, shows us. “I’m tired of changing the windows once a week.”

The border is on the eastern edge of town, near a sign that says “Belgorod – 56 km.” From here, thanks to its elevated position, one can see population centers on the other side of the border, and some plumes of smoke – where they’re coming from is unclear. According to several Telegram channels (mostly Russian), the armored vehicles of the Freedom for Russia Legion are still in Novaya Tavolzhanka and the Russian army is unable to stop them or drive them back.

“Get moving! Drone!” shouts the policeman as a buzzing sound like that of a giant insect fills the air. We speed away from that place at full speed and take the path back to the forests, just as a whitish, pungent smoke sticks in our noses and fogs our vision. Many things are happening among the trees, on either side of the border. As the video released by the Ukrainian Supreme Military Command says – “Shhh.”

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