Ukrainian attacks on supply lines slowed Russians in Kharkiv, intercepts show

KHARKIV REGION, Ukraine — Ukrainian attacks on Russian supply lines have left Russian units scrambling for food, water and ammunition, blunting Moscow’s renewed invasion into Ukraine’s northeast Kharkiv region, according to Ukrainian field commanders who shared radio and phone intercepts and results of their interrogations of Russian prisoners of war.

The intercepts and extensive interviews with 10 Ukrainian commanders and troops operating across the front line in Kharkiv — including several who monitor Russian communications and who question POWs immediately after they are captured — paint a picture of increasingly desperate Russian ground troops who are losing personnel and momentum after reinvading across the border in May.

In the transcript of one radio conversation, intercepted in June and shared with The Washington Post, a Russian soldier orders another to ensure incoming troops responsible for carrying supplies understand that there is a dire shortage of food and water.

“Tell each of them … not to listen to the [expletive] guide who says that ‘Water is not needed, food is not needed, everything is here,’” the soldier says. “There is nothing here.”

A conversation between three Russian soldiers using code names or call signs “Comrade,” “Varyag” and “Ahmed”:

Soldier 2: Varyag, can he hear? Can he hear me now? Comrade, Comrade, can he hear me? Can he hear me now?

Soldier 3: Ahmed is on the receiving end.

Soldier 1: Ahmed, Ahmed, prepare the third, small household for tomorrow. Ahmed, same principle as the last two. [Expletive] tell every [expletive] one of them, tell every [expletive] one of them, don’t [expletive] listen to the [expletive] guide, the [expletive] who says, “[expletive] don’t need any [expletive] water, [expletive] , don’t need any [expletive] food [expletive], it’s all [expletive] there.” There’s [expletive] nothing here. Give that to them, please, for [expletive] sake. If someone [expletive] comes to me tomorrow and says the guide said I’d give [food and water] to them, just [expletive] punch them in the [expletive] face.

Soldier 3: Yes, I did. I personally supervised today about the water and the food. They lose it out there. They throw it away on the way. I don’t give a [expletive].

— Radio communication in Russian intercepted by Ukrainian troops; translation by The Washington Post

The Post could not independently confirm the veracity of the audio and transcripts but received them directly from troops monitoring the communications. Nearly all of the Ukrainian soldiers interviewed for this article spoke on the condition that they be identified only by first name, in accordance with military rules.

Russia’s military, which far outnumbers Ukraine’s, remains at a strong advantage in the region, supported by hundreds of enormous glide bombs smashing weekly into Ukrainian positions across the front line. But Ukrainian troops have largely prevented major Russian territorial gains. According to British intelligence analysts, Russia in May suffered its highest number of daily casualties since the invasion began in February 2022, with at least 1,200 Russian troops killed or wounded each day.

The steep losses and degraded condition of Russian units on the front show how Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a grinding war of attrition with major territorial shifts unlikely between now and November when the Kremlin sees a chance that a Donald Trump victory in the U.S. presidential election could lead to a reduction in Western military aid for Ukraine.

In the Kharkiv region, Russian forces initially appeared poised to overrun the poorly fortified border region. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his goal was to create a buffer zone that would limit Ukrainian strikes on cities and towns in Russia. That also could have put the Russians within artillery range of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, potentially allowing them to encircle it.

But Ukraine’s defenses were buoyed in part by a White House decision to allow certain U.S. weapons to be used to strike inside Russia. The Ukrainians used American weapons to hit Russian air defenses, forcing the Russians to pull back some batteries. The Ukrainians also carried out coordinated attacks on Russian supply routes using drones and artillery.

The intercepted communications shared with The Post show that Russia now faces significant difficulty securing sufficient supply routes to serve the basic needs of its troops.

In one communication, a Russian soldier speaks to his parents, telling them he is positioned near the Ukrainian village of Lyptsi, where his unit lost several men and ran out of food.

“We had nothing to eat, but we found a jar of wine and drank it for two days,” the soldier said on the call, which Ukrainian troops recorded.

A Russian soldier in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine speaking to his parents and referencing Russian S-300 air defense systems:

We are at the front line. I’m calling you to say hello from Ukraine. I’m still alive. It’s very hot here in every sense: in terms of weather and situation. If my dad can hear me — it’s the reservoir, Lyptsi. I’m in some village; there are even five-story buildings here, though they’re all in shambles. We had nothing to eat, but we found a jar of wine and drank it for two days. Yesterday, we pulled out two of our 300s.

— Telephone call in Russian intercepted by Ukrainian troops; translation by The Washington Post

Another communication suggested troops were unwilling to move forward. “I am without orders,” one soldier says, describing troops who are “refusing.”

The intercepts, along with drone footage, provide critical intelligence as Ukrainian forces, outnumbered and outgunned, plan their next moves and assess the impact of their attacks.

Despite being stopped well short of encircling Kharkiv city, Russia’s objectives seem not to have changed, with Moscow’s forces still focused on seizing the village of Lyptsi, an important logistical hub that would also allow them to use hilltops for firing advantage, officials said.

Col. Maksym Golubok, 42, chief of staff of Ukraine’s 13th National Guard Brigade, said that since Washington lifted restrictions on hitting targets across the border, Russia has stopped massing large groups of troops in the border area and has moved some artillery systems away to protect them.

“They don’t gather people in one place. They operate in small units,” Golubok said in an interview. “We eliminate one soldier at a time, not entire units.”

Still, relentless glide bombs pose the greatest threat to Ukrainian troops. Between early May and late June, Golubok said, more than 660 bombs hit his brigade’s positions in the Kharkiv region.

Dmytro, 29, a Ukrainian soldier responsible for monitoring Russian communications, said that Russian soldiers previously used motorcycles and buggies for supply runs. But after Ukraine, using drones, mined roads and hit supply vehicles, Russian soldiers are moving mainly on foot.

Ukrainian troops are also delivering supplies on risky ground missions, as well as by air using agricultural drones that carry heavier payloads.

Soldier 1: Handsome, Handsome, I’m Said, over.

Soldier 2: Handsome is on the line.

Soldier 1: Handsome, you’ve got gifts coming in today. Are gifts flowing in?

Soldier 2: When, when?

Soldier 1: Today, this morning.

Soldier 2: I got [expletive] of guests, just like yesterday, and they’re all empty. I didn’t get an [expletive] present today. Yesterday, Koba brought me one backpack, and there was some small stuff in there too, and again some [expletive] rusty [expletive] ammo.

— Radio communication in Russian intercepted by Ukrainian troops; translation by The Washington Post

Due to constant Ukrainian surveillance, Russian troops are moving in short bursts, taking cover frequently, Dmytro said, so a five-mile journey for food and water could take three days or longer.

“If we disrupt the routes they use for food and supplies, we won’t need to go on assault — they’ll just leave the positions,” he said, speaking from a different underground command center north of Kharkiv where wall-mounted screens showed live bird’s eye views of Russian positions.

Andrii Shcherbyna, 42, a soldier in Ukraine’s 57th brigade, said that while on front-line missions, he drinks two to three liters of water a day. From intercepts, Shcherbyna said he understood Russian troops are rationing water, drinking just 250 milliliters each.

“Our main target is not let the Russians establish supply routes,” he said. “If you cut water and food, they’re in a very bad condition.”

Some Russian soldiers are now holed up in a factory in Vovchansk, a town Russia invaded in May where street battles continue to occur, Ukrainian officials said.

In June, Ukraine cut off supplies by surrounding the factory, which is the tallest building in the area and fortified by thick walls.

Soldier 1: Roger, roger.

Soldier 2: Said, Said, look, rusty [expletive] ammo. … These are backpacks, intended for Koschei. And the ones that go to Handsome are purely provisions; there wasn’t a single ammo in them. How did you take it?

Soldier 1: Kuban, I took you in, I took you in. They [expletive] got mixed up, and Krasavchik got [expletive] ammunition.

Soldier 2: Just total, as I understand it. I packed them. There were four backpacks with ammo; if two popped, two more popped, so the rest of the backpacks were already without ammo.

— Radio communication in Russian intercepted by Ukrainian troops; translation by The Washington Post

Despite initial plans to flood the area with reinforcements, Russia has been unable to reach the factory, Ukrainian troops said. Storming it would be difficult, so Ukrainian troops focus on blocking supply routes.

Vitalii, 23, one of the Ukrainian troops working in intense 24-hour shifts monitoring the factory from a destroyed civilian house nearby, said there could be anywhere from dozens to more than 100 Russian soldiers inside. “Our responsibility is to control the road to cut off supply,” Vitalii said.

Russia has also tried — often unsuccessfully — to deliver supplies by drone, Vitalii said.

Each journey to and from Vitalii’s position could be his last. To get there, Ukrainian soldiers leave their vehicles some distance away, then move on foot for hours under intense attack. Knowing they have trapped Russian troops inside is worth it, said another soldier, Roman, 35.

“I don’t think they thought they’d be in this position,” Roman said.

Intercepted information is so valuable that Ukrainian troops risk their lives to collect it.

Andrii, 37, an infantry soldier who has spent weeks fighting on the most intense front lines, said he knew from such intelligence gathering that Russia “had a lot of injured and they had problems with food and water.”

“They asked for resupply, but vehicles could not reach them,” Andrii said.

A Russian soldier in the Kharkiv region speaking to a woman, apparently his wife:

I’m fine for now, I don’t know what will happen next. They said we would go another kilometer further, but I don’t know when we will go, first of all, and secondly, everything was mined this morning. I don’t know what it will look like! I haven’t reached my place yet. I don’t have a place now. I just came to my old position to get my first aid kit, and then I’ll return.

— Radio communication in Russian intercepted by Ukrainian troops; translation by The Washington Post

Last month, after a street gun battle in Vovchansk, Andrii said he collected a green radio off the chest of a dead Russian soldier — the first time in two years of fighting that he found such a prize.

Back at the destroyed civilian house where he was based, Andrii hung the radio on the wall. It was so loud that he spent 30 minutes trying to lower the volume so he could monitor Russian operations without giving away his own position with the noise.

Then, for 12 hours, he listened as troops relayed their positions and plans. He reported the details to his own commanders, until the line went dead.

The information helped thwart a planned Russian attack, Andrii said. “Ukrainian troops were waiting for them,” he said. “If you’re informed, you’re ready.”

On a more personal level, listening to frantic Russian voices also boosted Andrii’s spirits. “It helped a lot to hear they’re panicking and in fear,” he said. “I could hear their fear, and it inspired me, because we’re also scared.”

In this article, The Washington Post used [expletive] where profanity appears instead of its usual style because the profanity in Russian does not always directly translate into English.

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