Ukraine’s special forces are holding back the Russian offensive on the Kyiv front

IRPIN, Ukraine – Every day for the past week Russian Armed Forces tried to fight their way through this Kyiv suburb to reach the Ukrainian capital. And every day Ukrainian troops forced them to retreat, leaving behind burning tanks and armored personnel carriers.

“We’re going to hunt them down and destroy them,” said Volodymyr, a Ukrainian special forces team leader, while his squad, armed with a British .308 sniper rifle and British-made anti-tank weapons, waited for them The last Russian attack. “They certainly didn’t come here expecting that because they expected us to know how to fight.”

Volodymyr, left, with the Ukrainian special forces team he directs in Irpin on Friday.


The Ukrainian special forces are on missions near Irpin every night.

The front lines here have largely held up ever since the first day of the war, on February 24, as a Russian column pushed north from Belarus. In some places, including the neighboring town of Bucha, the Russians were pushed back.

“Ukraine is fighting in a way that no one expected, not the Russians and not our Western partners,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president and a member of the Kiev delegation to the ceasefire talks with Russia. “Kyiv should have fallen in three days.”

That’s partly because Ukraine has deployed elite special forces trained by the US and allies in recent years to defend Kyiv. Armed with British NLAW and American-made Javelin anti-tank weapons and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, they have helped mitigate the Russian advantage in aviation and in long-range missiles and artillery.

But Kyiv is also holding because the Russian troops seem to have held out here Soviet-style large-scale maneuver tacticsmoving in long convoys vulnerable to attack by small reconnaissance units and the Ukrainian fleet Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed dronessaid Ukrainian officers.


Ukrainian forces took cover from shelling in Horenka on the outskirts of Kyiv on Friday.


Soldiers said cloud cover hampered Russia’s deployment of attack helicopters.

“We are shocked at how stupid their behavior is,” said another member of Ukraine’s special forces, who was out on nightly missions in the area. His unit has lost two soldiers since the war began nine days ago and has killed more than 60 Russians in the last few days. “Now our main focus is hitting their backs, their supply convoys, because if they can’t get fuel, there’s nothing they can do.”

Morale among Ukrainian defenders was high in Irpin on Friday, even as a Russian attack plane flew low over an apartment block and the sound of artillery shells grew ever closer. Large plumes of black smoke billowed north and south of the city along other key routes that Russian forces have been trying to enter Kyiv for more than a week.

Cloud cover has hampered Russia’s deployment of attack helicopters, soldiers here said. But to be prepared in case enemy helicopters or attack aircraft approached, one of the soldiers took position with a man-portable anti-aircraft missile on his shoulder. The troops here say they operate their own small drones, some with thermal imaging cameras, to search for Russian targets.

“The Russians keep trying to get in and encircle us, but they just can’t do it. We are together, we are organized and we have strong wills,” said Alyona Pavlova, a soldier from Irpin who helped evacuate civilians from the city on Friday. “It’s a real war – and nobody was really ready at first because nobody really believed that Russia would do something crazy like that.”


Civilians have fled fighting in Irpin and other cities under Russian control.


Children were evacuated from the fighting in Irpin on Friday.

Ukrainian and foreign civilians are pouring out of Irpin and the towns beyond, under Russian control, marching toward the relative safety of Kyiv despite shelling and airstrikes.

After blowing up a bridge over the River Irpin, they must climb down and under the span, then navigate an unsafe path with their trunks and pets in hand. There was no formal agreement with Russia on the humanitarian corridor here, Ukrainian soldiers said, and the risk of a Russian shell hitting the area, which has happened before, was constant.

“I hid in an emergency shelter for seven days, but today the power went out and enough is enough,” said Mykhailo, a screenwriter who traveled more than an hour from the other side of Irpin, near the nearest town, with two backpacks hiked from Bucha. He did not want to give his last name.

“The Russians are striking everywhere and it’s exploding in front of my house right now,” he said. It’s the second time Mykhailo said he had to move. He fled his hometown of Luhansk after pro-Russian forces took it over in 2014.

Tanya Rybko and her two children spent the whole morning on foot the city of Hostomel north of here. Russian troops control several parts of the city, while Ukrainians are deployed in others. “And tonight we were right in the middle, between the two sides,” she said.

Russian troops, she added, occupied a nearby apartment building, taking civilians hostage and confiscating their phones so residents wouldn’t tip Ukrainian troops. Hungry, Russian forces also looted local shops and homes in search of food, she said.


Civilians evacuate from Irpin on Friday. Some of them are taking shelter in the relative safety of Kyiv.


The risk of a Russian shell hitting the area is constant, Ukrainian soldiers said, as there was no formal agreement with Russia on a humanitarian corridor in Irpin.

Mohammad Amin, a Tunisian IT specialist, has been living in Ukraine for 10 years. On Friday, with a small suitcase in tow, Mr Amin, his Ukrainian wife and their 4-year-old son left the apartment they bought in Irpin and walked for almost an hour to the bridge hoping to get to Kyiv then on in the European Union.

“I just can’t sit in the shelter anymore,” Mr. Amin said out of breath. “The Russians, they’re just jealous. Feeling defeated, they simply attack homes with civilians. You know very well where civilians live.”

He pointed to Ukrainian soldiers guarding the bridge with bright yellow tape on their helmets. “And these people,” he said, “they are heroes. Believe me, I’m telling the truth.”

A fire broke out at Ukraine’s Zaporizhia nuclear power plant during Friday’s Russian shelling, raising concerns about a possible environmental disaster. The Ukrainian president requested a face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin, who said the operation was going as planned. Photo: Energoatom/Reuters

write to Yaroslav Trofimov

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