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"We will all be killed": Fears of another Russian occupation of Ukrainian city

KUPIANSK, Ukraine — Among eastern Ukraine’s shell-shocked front-line cities, the strategic rail hub of Kupiansk has endured almost as much time under Russian occupation as it has since independence — about seven months each during Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the country. Kupyansk is located in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine, which was both reduced and destroyed during the 14-month war. More than 80% of its residents have fled, and pockmarked streets and apartment buildings are scarred by relentless Russian shelling.

“Kupyansk or the cities around Kupyansk will never come under Russian control again,” Andriy Besedin, the city’s protesting mayor, told CBS News. “They definitely won’t come back here.”

The Russian invasion force, however, did not seem to get the mayor’s message. They advanced to within less than six miles of the city, lying in wait on the eastern horizon.


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

CBS News

During our trip to the devastated area, the sky-high whoosh of Russian artillery and the sound of Ukrainian forces firing their rockets echoed across the sky above us every few minutes. The silence after each launch leaves people anxiously wondering where and when the next shell will fall.

“Kupyansk has excellent rail connections that connect Russia and Ukraine,” Besedin explained. “For the occupiers – for the terrorist state of Russia – Kupyansk has logistical significance in terms of delivering cargo and ammunition to our territory.”

About 20 railway lines intersect the city. About half is in the country ahead, the other half tracks directly into Russia.

Before Moscow launches its full-scale offensive on Feb. 24, 2022, many Kupyansk residents will travel to Russia to work in better-paying jobs, Besedin said.

The tracks were largely quiet during the war, but if Russian forces are able to recapture Kupyansk, the city could serve as a vital supply hub for Putin’s troops to push further west into Ukraine. The townspeople know that if Russia moves to retake Kupyansk, it will be another bloody battle in a war that, by most estimates, has already cost more than 100,000 lives.


Spring 2023 shows a heavily damaged street in the formerly occupied eastern Ukrainian city of Kupyansk, about six miles from the front line and Russian invasion forces.

CBS News

“If Kupyansk is captured by our enemies again, it will not be just a capture, we will kill everyone,” said Vadim Kyachko, regional head of Ukraine’s state emergency service. “It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve just taken over.”

Forced to be on alert every hour of the day, Kyachko and his team rushed after each Russian attack to put out fires and pull people out of the rubble. He admits that he is tired. Several of his colleagues were wounded by Russian shelling, but none of them were killed yet.

The day we meet Kyachko, he and his team are quietly scanning a grassy lawn on a college campus for unexploded Russian weapons.


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

CBS News

A Russian S-300 missile left a gaping hole in one of the academic buildings in January. Reconstruction was seen as foolish because of the proximity of Russian forces and artillery, we saw windows and doors still blown out and we walked over broken glass underfoot.

“There is not a day that goes by that we are not shelled. There is almost nothing left in our outer villages,” Kiachko said. “No day or night. It’s all the same. We’re used to it.”

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

He welcomed our team to film on his devastated 12,000 acre farm. A coil of smoke rose from piles of grain scattered at the entrance to his farm.

The utter devastation that Russian forces have unleashed on Ukraine’s front lines. We went to the village of Petropavlivka – less than three miles from Russian controlled territory. The farmer who owns the 12,000 acre complex now has nothing. He still lives here. #WalkWithMe pic.twitter.com/To8nYpb01M

— Ramy Inocencio 英若明 (@RamyInocencio) April 10, 2023

“We don’t have anything that doesn’t perish,” Kozar told us. “No wheat, no corn, no hogs. Nothing left. No tools, no warehouses.”

A Russian rocket hit one of its buildings just three days before we were there. Kozar said he was used to near-death experiences.

“My office was over there, and a missile landed right on my chair,” he told us, pointing to the second floor of another heavily damaged building. “Luckily I wasn’t there, neither were any of my colleagues.”


Anatoly Kozar, 70, speaks to CBS News in March 2023 at his ruined farm complex on the outskirts of Kupyansk, eastern Ukraine.

CBS News

But Kozar refuses to give up his land.

“I’m over 70 years old, and somewhere to escape – to escape? I’ve built all this with my hands over the years. There have been moments when I’m standing here and a missile is flying over me and I think ‘ So what.'”

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