Izium: after being occupied by Russia for months, the city was retaken by Ukraine

As CNN became the first international television crew to enter Izium since the Ukrainians retook it on Saturday, the team encountered a city waking up to its new reality: that the six-month occupation is over.

Izium has now been “liberated,” along with almost the entire Kharkiv region, a Ukrainian military source told CNN. The city is a major strategic loss for the Russian military, which used it as a base and supply route for forces in eastern Ukraine, and shows the speed and scale of Ukraine’s lightning-quick counteroffensive in the northeast.

Along with the parallel offensive in the south, Ukraine has seized a total of 6,000 square kilometers (about 2,300 square miles) of land, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday. Russia has said the withdrawal of its troops from the region was “tactical” in order to focus resources on the Donbas area.

In Izium, work continues to make the city center completely safe. The Ukrainians are still seeking to capture some Russian soldiers who are still in hiding and anyone who worked with them during the occupation. The city remains in a complete information blackout, with no phone or data signal — a tactic used by the Russians in occupied territories.

According to the CNN team, local people are relieved to see their city back in Ukrainian hands.

Although the streets of Izium were largely quiet, residents occasionally came out of their homes and waved at CNN vehicles or passing military trucks, and shook hands with Ukrainian soldiers they encountered.

But at the same time, the fear of the Russians still grips the city. Most of the residents CNN approached were too afraid to speak freely about what happened there in recent months.

A couple in their fifties agreed to speak, using first names only.

Valeriy said that they are celebrating the victory of the Ukrainian city, which he called “balm for the soul”.

“We prayed to God that he would be released without a fight and without bloodshed. And he was,” he said.

The rot runs deep in the Russian war machine.  Ukraine is being exposed for all to see

The distant sound of shells is a constant reminder that despite impressive gains in this counteroffensive, the war has not yet been won, and many parts of Ukraine are still within the Russian arsenal of heavy weapons.

But, slowly, the Ukrainians are working to restore Izium and the rest of the reclaimed territories to something normal.

During CNN’s visit, a group of Ukrainian soldiers triumphantly ascended in a steam tank. With obvious glee, they quickly attached themselves to a Russian self-propelled artillery vehicle, completely abandoned by the retreating Russians. The weapon is one of the most powerful in the Russian army and will be used for the counterattack against Ukraine.

When asked if the recapture of the city was a hard fight, the tank driver who started with the shell said: “Not really.”

From these battles in the north-east the Ukrainians have obtained an enormous amount of arms transport, as many Russian troops sacrificed their entire vehicles to escape with their lives.

Inside the abandoned Russian command center

One of the last measurements The battle of Izium took place in a former school which, according to the Ukrainian army, was being used as a base for Russian troops. The Russians surrounded the building with deep trenches, sandbags and armored vehicles.

The building is now destroyed, piles of red bricks and radiators mixed with broken windows and fallen timbers from the roof. Next to the building is the shell of a red truck on its side, bearing the ‘Z’ logo of the Russian forces.

A former school building used as a base for Russian troops in Izium is in ruins.

Down the road is the building those troops were trying to protect: the Russian command center, hidden in an underground bunker beneath a disused factory.

Rows of mismatched desks lined the dark basement, and white labels attached job titles — including air defense, artillery, intelligence and national security commanders, along with lower-ranking titles such as “duty officer.” Nearby, Ukrainian troops are still finding traps left to protect their cache, including a trip wire with a grenade attached.

A pile of ammunition found near a bunker used by the Russians as a command center in Izium.
Sleeping beds used by Russian forces in their underground bunker are seen.

Another dreary concrete room opposite the command center served as sleeping quarters, with old wooden doors placed horizontally on piles of bricks or containers to create beds. The retreating troops apparently left in a hurry, leaving clothes, toothpaste and papers scattered on the floor and beds.

A Ukrainian soldier showed CNN a green rotary phone left behind by troops. “Russian technology!” he laughed — in English.

On the ground, the Russians also left piles of ammunition.

Along with the loss of the weapon and the humiliating retreat captured on several videos and shared on social media, a military official told CNN that Ukraine has taken a large number of Russian prisoners of war.

Ukrainian soldiers were triumphant in spirit as they drove through the city, waving from their newly purchased tanks and trucks, many of them with the telltale ‘Z’ already painted on them.

A destroyed bridge can be seen near Izium.

“Who did we come here to free?”

Resident Valeriy Izium said the city’s locals are angry with the Russians for their behavior.

“Where there were no people, (the Russians) stole everything,” Valeriy said. “They lived like pigs. We entered a house – and pigs live better.”

According to Valeriy, the fighting in Izium began on March 4, when eight Grad rockets landed near the house, which was “terrifying” but fortunately did not hit them directly. The next door neighbor’s house was destroyed by one of the rockets, but he survived unscathed.

According to him, the Russian troops who arrived in the city at the beginning of the war quickly realized that the justification of the invasion by Russian President Vladimir Putin — to “denazify” Ukraine — was a lie.

Izium resident Valeriy, pictured with his wife, told CNN that locals were angry with the Russians for their behavior.

“A Russian artilleryman came and said ‘Dad, we saved you from the Nazis,'” Valeriy said. “And I said, ‘Show me one.’

Valeriy said he spoke to the young soldiers in Russian and tried to make them see that the close relationship between Ukrainians and Russians was being destroyed, especially in this country so close to the border.

“I told them that a man’s house was destroyed, and he was from the Kursk region (of Russia),” Valeriy said. “Everyone here has relatives in Belgorod (Russia) and other cities.”

At one point, he said, Russian reconnaissance forces came to him and asked him: “Who have we come here to free?”

This sense of confusion and disillusionment among Russian ground troops was probably a major factor in their withdrawal from this region last week.

But more dangerous for Putin is that his army’s command and control system has collapsed in Kharkiv province. Those senior officers fled their bunkers, and their men abandoned their heavy weapons in flight.

Ukrainian forces will try to stay on the run and perhaps hope that one day they will return to Moscow with the story of what happened in Kharkiv and hold their leaders to account.