Klishchiivka liberation operation lasted for more than a month. And preparation for it took several more months. Babel spoke with the participants of the assault and tells in detail how it was

Oksana Kovalenko
Dmytro Rayevskyi
Klishchiivka liberation operation lasted for more than a month. And preparation for it took several more months. Babel spoke with the participants of the assault and tells in detail how it was

Getty Images / «Babel'»

On September 17, 2023, the military leadership officially announced that the Armed Forces of Ukraine liberated the village of Klishchiivka near Bakhmut. Three days before that, neighboring Andriivka was also liberated. These were two different operations. Andriivka was liberated by the Third Assault Brigade and the units attached to it, we have already described this operation in detail. Klishchiivka is much larger than Andriivka, so it was stormed by a joint tactical group of the 80th and 5th brigades, the 24th assault battalion Aidar and Fury, the brigade of the National Police. Each assault is the coordinated work of stormtroopers, artillery, snipers, medics, drone pilots and many other people. And everyone has their own story. In order to restore the chronology of the liberation of Klishchiivka and tell how it all happened, Babel correspondent Oksana Kovalenko spoke with the commander of the 80th Separate Assault Brigade of Halychyna, Colonel Emil Ishkulov, the former commander of the 5th Separate Assault Brigade of Kyiv, Colonel Oleksandr Yakovenko and the soldiers of the 80th Brigade: Chief medical post of one of the "Ramses" battalions, stormtrooper Arnold and the commander of the brigadeʼs sniper unit, Peter. Now the Russians are trying to win back the village, and there is almost nothing left of Klishchiivka itself, as well as of neighboring Andriivka.

The village

Klishchiivka is located three kilometers south of Bakhmut. The village itself is in the lowlands, but all around are the heights, from which Bakhmut can be seen as in the palm of a hand. In addition, on the eastern and northern edges, it is separated from Bakhmut by a railway track on an embankment, which is a convenient natural barrier. Therefore, Klishchiivka is an important position for both Ukrainian fighters and Russians.

During the population census in 2001, 512 people lived in Klishchiivka, almost 85% of them said Ukrainian as their native language and only 14% said itʼs Russian.

In Klishchiivka there is a church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin, built in 1841. It was against its background that the fighters announced the liberation of the village. And this is almost the only building in the village that still has undestroyed walls.

The ancient church in Klishchiivka before the war.

The village had shops, a post office, a social club, a paramedic-midwifery center, a village club, a library, and a water intake that supplied water to Bakhmut and the village of Opytne east of Klishchiivka. A school bus took children to the nearby village of Ivanivske. Villagers mostly worked in Bakhmut.

How it all started

In January 2023, the Russians surrounded Bakhmut from the south in order to further cut the roads by which the Armed Forces of Ukraine delivered provisions to the city and conducted rotations. They occupied Andriivka on November 30, 2022, and fighting continued for Klishchiivka for almost two months.

On January 20, 2023, the Ukrainian military lost control of the village, and the Russians began to rapidly advance northeast to Chasiv Yar. And already in the middle of February, they moved to the other side of the channel, actually surrounded Ivanivske from the west and south and were able to get control over the road Bakhmut — Kostyantynivka.

Stabilization and movement of Ukrainian forces towards Klishchiivka.

Поліна Семенова / «Бабель»

Therefore, at the end of January 2023, the command gave an order to stop the Russians, throw them off the road, free the western bank of the canal and go to the southwestern outskirts of Bakhmut in the Ivanivske district. This was done by a consolidated tactical group under the leadership of Colonel Yevhen Mezhevikin. The 80th airborne assault brigade, commanded by Emil Ishkulov, had to clear Klishchiivka. They were assisted by the 5th assault brigade under the leadership of Oleksandr Yakovenko, who commanded the 24th separate assault battalion Aidar.

The 80th brigade was able to stop the Russians across the canal, pushed them to the eastern bank and prevented them from approaching the Bakhmut-Kostyantynivka road, while the 5th brigade stopped them south of Ivanivske.

The then commander of the 5th brigade, Oleksandr Yakovenko, says that the Russians advanced quickly, and there was no defense line as such, so his subordinates had to move to new positions. Due to severe frosts, it wasnʼt easy, but the brigade was able to secure positions south of Ivanivske. The Russians continued to press and advance to the west and south.

"We were opposed to Wagnerians there. They pressed, lost people and brought in new ones without stopping — thatʼs how they advanced. None of them was involved in evacuating either the wounded or the killed. They crawled over their own corpses," recalls Yakovenko. So the Russians went to the other bank of the canal in the area closer to Chasiv Yar.

By that time, the Ukrainian Defense Forces had already fortified and were ready to give battle. In mid-February, the 80th brigade and part of the 24th battalion were able to push the Russians away from the road and part of the Ivanivsky forest with two assaults on vehicles. And throw them to the other side of the channel. The battle for the channel to the south was led by the 3rd assault brigade in May 2023 during the operation to liberate Andriivka.

During March and April 2023, the fighters restrained the Russians who tried to take control of the road. The main forces were thrown into the defense of Bakhmut, which lasted until May.

The work of the 80th brigade near Klishchiivka.

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Counteroffensive. The first stage is Ivanivsky forest

At the beginning of May 2023, fighters of the 5th and 80th brigades went on the offensive, which began with an assault on the forest south of the village of Ivanivske. The main task was to repel the Russians as far as possible from Ivanivske, the road and the canal. The 80th brigade went through the woods and along the canal, and further to the east. And the 5th brigade at that time was repelling positions south of Ivanivske along the fields and plantations.

The Russians prepared a strong defense, the entire forest was mined. And they didnʼt just dig trenches in the forest, but made holes and threw branches so that they could not be seen from above. Ukrainian fighters often noticed such holes at the last moment. Arnold, a stormtrooper of the 80th brigade, says that each assault lasted at least 10-12 hours.

"We shot very little, mostly approached the positions and threw grenades at them," he says, adding that practically no prisoners were taken in the Ivanivsky forest.

Mainly, the forest was defended by mercenaries from "Wagnerʼs PMC". The assaults took place under constant artillery and mortar fire. The fighters had to cover 7-10 kilometers on foot. And they carried the wounded back.

During one of the assaults, Arnold lost a friend with whom they signed contracts together in the same brigade. The friend was 19 years old, he was a grenade launcher. They went on the assault in different groups. Arnoldʼs friend saw the Russians and shouted his compatriots about that. At that moment he was shot.

"I was told by his commander that he was wounded and had to be taken out," Arnold recalls.

Despite the fact that he was asked to wait because of heavy mortar fire, Arnold hastened. Two more stormtroopers went with him, they had to walk 100-120 meters. They ran up, but it was already too late — their friend was wounded in the head.

"We made the decision to take his body away. Dragged him to our positions. I sat down next to his body and cried. A mortar started working on us. A fragment of a mine flew near me, the guys called me to the trench, but I didnʼt care anymore," says Arnold.

The body was handed over for evacuation. Arnold says that after that they gathered ammunition, grenades, drank water, united in one group and went forward. The stormtroopers were supposed to take 200 meters, but they had such a desire for revenge that they went further and took 700-800 meters.

"We were just destroying everything in front of us," Arnold recalls.

Evacuation points were developed by medics. As the head of the medical center of one of the battalions of the 80th brigade, Ramses, told Babel, he carefully studies and conducts reconnaissance of the area of responsibility in order to correctly place evacuation points, hide vehicles, quickly provide assistance and transfer the wounded to stabilization points.

"In Ivanivsky forest, we actually started with wheels, and on the very first day I was injured by artillery shelling," Ramses recalls.

The second stage: preparation for the assault on Klishchiivka, forest strips

In June 2023, the units were tasked with preparing for the assault on Klishchiivka. One of the battalions of the 5th brigade was supposed to approach the forest strip, which was called Kleshnya (the claw) because of its shape. Oleksandr Yakovenko says that it took Ukrainian fighters about a week to knock out the Russians from the stronghold because they were hiding in the trenches. Another battalion of the 5th brigade was working in the forest nearby — the trees were dense, and the forest strips on the approaches to it were burned in the winter, during the Russian offensive — only trunks remained of them, offering almost no cover. Also, the Russians mined everything.

North of Kleshnya, the 5th brigade fought for the forest strip, which changed hands for three weeks. In the end, it was liberated by Ukrainian fighters.

Situation around Klishchiivka and Andriivka as of April 30. 2023. Captions clockwise from top: Kleshnya, dam, administrationʼs company support point (CSP), canal, height 233.3, 5th brigade position, the westernmost position which the Russians reached, Ivanivsky forest.

Поліна Семенова / «Бабель»

The 18th brigade was to approach Klishchiivka from the southwest: in front of the village it was necessary to take the height called "233.3". As the commander of the 80th brigade, Emil Ishkulov told Babel that the line from this height to the east to the canal was supposed to be the boundary for the 3rd assault brigade, which then went east to storm Andriivka.

"And we went to storm the forest that went down to Klishchiivka itself. Meanwhile, the 5th brigade from Kleshnya began to enter the administration CSP — another height, to the east of Kleshnya. We helped each other. Sometimes we advance, then the 5th pushes from its side, so we stretched the enemy and advanced further," says Ishkulov.

Assaulting the forest strips there turned out to be much more difficult than Ivanivsky forest, Arnold recalls.

"I realized that Ivanivske and Klishchiivka are heaven and hell [in comparison]. Because in Klishchiivka the enemy began to pour in heavy weapons and very intensively. Some 80% of all wounded got their wounds from debris. We manage to pass half of the forest in front of Klishchiivka itself, the Russian Grad MRLS covers us, and the fragment tears the muscles in my arm and enters my leg," he recalls.

Comrades took Arnold to the evacuation point, where he had to wait a long time for transport — the car could not leave due to constant shelling. He remembers that at one point he felt that he was completely covered by the ground — it was a rocket landing nearby.

"I canʼt hear the boys, I canʼt breathe, I could barely say: ʼIʼm here.ʼ Somehow they heard me, dug me out, and I was finally able to take a breath of air. Then I realized that I was alive," Arnold recalls. Before this injury, he received several contusions of varying severity during the storming of Klishchiivka, but he returned to the army at the first opportunity.

He was evacuated by a soldier who broke his arm that day, but when he learned about his comradeʼs injury, he went to pick him up. He arrived in an ordinary pickup truck. The road was difficult — there was a narrow safe strip on a mined field, it is impossible to turn on the headlights in the dark so that the enemy does not notice.

Medic Ramses explains that as the stormtroopers advanced from Ivanivske to Klishchiivka, the routes of logistics and medics changed. For this, the 80th brigade built several crossings across the canal. Another difficulty was that Bakhmut is nearby.

Fighters of the 80th brigade on their position.

Facebook / «Бабель»

"The specifics of the front are such that as long as the occupied Bakhmut looms overhead, the Russians completely block our paths with barrel artillery fire. At the beginning, we could evacuate people with pickup trucks, then we gradually switched to light armored vehicles and other means of evacuation. Despite the Geneva Conventions, which forbid attacking medics and the wounded, the Russians constantly fired at them. Medics are one of the priority targets for the enemy,” says Ramses.

At the end of summer and beginning of autumn, the Russians began to use FPV drones, which significantly complicated the work of both stormtroopers and medics.

At the beginning of July, the 80th brigade took the height "233.3" and cleared the forest west of Klishchiivka, and the 5th brigade took the CSP. This is a small highly located fortified area with trenches and bunkers. Both heights were key for the offensive on Klishchiivka.

The 5th brigade was to take control of the forest north of Klishchiivka and the railway along it. But it didnʼt work out. The key reason was that Bakhmut was close by — the Russians could easily receive reinforcements directly from the city. And even more — to shell Ukrainian positions from city high-rise buildings. Every personnel change or evacuation was a risk of losing people. Everything had to be done on foot.

Also, it was necessary to take control of the pipe under the railway. The defenders almost succeeded, but the Russians then repelled them and thus could bring in reinforcements and enter the positions.

A pipe under the railway, through which the Russians could bring in reinforcements.

libkos / Instagram / «Бабель»

Assault of Klishchiivka

Liberation of Klishchiivka was a separate operation. In August, the first and second battalions of the 80th brigade began an assault on the village from the southern street under the forest. They were moving north. Ramses recalls that when the brigade took over the first streets and established a bridgehead, they were joined by the Fury brigade. One of the battalions of the 80th brigade also cleared the street leading south to Andriivka.

Brigadier General of the 80th brigade Emil Ishkulov says that in addition to clearing the streets [of Russian occupiers and mines], the battalion of his brigade cleared the forest strip west of Klishchiivka to the railway and went to the Alebastrovy train station to provide cover from the flank.

"They managed to do this with minimal losses," says Ishkulov.

The battles for the village itself were difficult. In order to disorient the enemy, the 80th brigade began to carry out assaults from the forest under the CSP. Fighters constantly attacked the Russians from different directions, so that they did not understand which houses and streets would be next. But the Russians attacked in response to each assault. Sometimes it opened an opportunity for a counterattack.

"They [the Russians] stormed us at least twice a day. It happened that we were the first to storm them, and immediately after that there were two or three attacks from them — either in the same direction or in another. Once a week, they went out on BMPs and tanks — we beat them back. Once they even reported somewhere in the Telegram channels that Klishchiivka was recaptured on tanks. And in fact, then we destroyed half of their equipment, and the infantry that got out of it were captured near the houses and in the basements," says Ishkulov.

And he adds that there were cases when, repelling an assault, it was possible to move forward: "Once, an infantry fighting vehicle with a landing party went to the Fury. They shelled the Russians and were able to advance another 150-200 meters."

Klishchiivka village. Legend, clockwise from top: the bridge over the canal, pipe under the railway, forest strips, Alebastrova train station, Southern worest, the church, Northern forest.

Поліна Семенова / «Бабель»

Snipers covered the work of the attack aircraft. The commander of the sniper division of the 80th brigade, Petro, says that the snipers could cover the assault groups that entered from different flanks from the heights. And also to prevent the Russians from holding the defense, to rotate their personnel in the trenches and observation posts.

"We had to prevent them from making their rotations at night — and, accordingly, had to destroy them. The paratroopers stood against us there — a prepared, equipped and well-trained enemy. Unlike the Wagnerites and Storm Z, they tried to evacuate their wounded and dead," recalls Petro.

The Russians used shells with tear gas to smoke the Ukrainian fighters out of their shelters, snipers also got their hands on them. The direction was determined by the wind, and the gas mainly settles in the depths — trenches and basements.

"It irritates the mucous membranes, it is difficult for a person to breathe, hard to see, everything burns. A person is disoriented, and if you donʼt use a gas mask or other means of protection, the entire defense or assault group can be disoriented, and at that time the enemy can start an assault," explains Petro.

In the 20th of August, the southern half of Klishchiivka was liberated. But it was getting harder. The Russians received reinforcements through the bridge north of Klishchiivka. On this road, Oleksandr Yakovenko says, they constantly stopped in small groups to repel Ukrainian assaults.

At the end of August, a group of three enemy tanks and three AFVs passed through that bridge — they entered the village and went west to cut off the path to the road. But the enemy was stopped: several tanks exploded on mines, the artillery worked well, and the entire group — about 30 people — was destroyed. Later, that bridge was destroyed by a guided aerial bomb. And when the Russians built a way around, the Ukrainian soldiers waited until the equipment was going to cross it — they knocked it out, and the crossing was finished off with artillery so that it could no longer be used.

The last houses in the north were the most difficult. "It took for us about 10 days to capture 500-600 meters. The enemy already perfectly understood the direction of our actions, and this made our work very difficult," Ishkulov explains.

On September 15, Klishchiivka was liberated, but the military reported of that later so they had enough time to fortify themselves. Usually, after public announcements about the liberated territories, the Russians intensify their attacks. But this time the Russians tried to recapture the village even before the public statement. The attack came from three directions: from the terrivon side, three or four groups of 10-15 people each came; three groups of 10 people each came from the side of the pipe, and nine groups of 10-15 people each went from the side of Bakhmut.

The work of the 5th brigade near Klishchiivka.

The work of the 5th brigade near Klishchiivka.

Facebook / «Бабель»

"In total, the number of 150 people sounded in the interceptions, but we counted 130. The Russians even entered the streets, but we were able to repel this assault. Their losses were up to 90 people killed and wounded," says Ishkulov. And he adds that since February 2023, during the entire Klishchiivka operation, his brigade took 140 prisoners.

On September 17, 2023, fighters of all units that participated in the liberation of Klishchiivka recorded and published a video against the background of the church. Later, the 80th brigade went to the railway track to the east of the village and entrenched itself. Despite the constant attacks of the Russians, that part of the front is still held. Nothing remained of Klishchiivka, though.

"Itʼs like we liberated a Ukrainian village, but in fact we liberated a wasteland that is unfit for life," says Petro.

The entire surrounding area is mined, and fierce battles continue for Klishchiivka even four months after its liberation.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.