There are many reasons that Russia’s 40-mile column of tanks failed to encircle Kyiv. Anatoliy Kybukevych’s band of partisans is one of them, but they paid a terrible price.
The local home guard chief and his men stayed behind when the Russians seized their village of Andriivka, on the column’s path through the Kyiv countryside. Kybukevych and his men called in Russian positions to Ukrainian forces, aiding a precise and destructive targeting of the column.
The Russian troops’ thrust to Kyiv faltered, then ground to a halt, then they eventually fled north back across the Belarus border, but for the partisans there was no moment of triumph: someone had informed on them.
On March 12 Russia’s black-clad military police came for Vadym Ganiuk, 33, who lived on the northern edge of Andriivka. They dragged him into his cellar, beat him, shot him in the knees and shoulders, put a bag over his head and finished him off with a round to the head. They did the same to Ganiuk’s nextdoor neighbour, Vitaliy Kybukevych, 45, a cousin of Anatoliy.
Ruslan Yaremchuk died on the same day, although the circumstances are less clear. His body was discovered, bound hand and foot, when his neighbours, the Oleksienko brothers, returned to the ruins of their bombed-out house after the Russians fled. They found Yaremchuk’s decaying body slumped in their back garden. He had also been shot.
In those early days, when a siege of Kyiv appeared imminent, much was written about the giant column of tanks snaking down the west side of the city, visible from space. The Russians appeared to have victory within their grasp and there has been much speculation about why the advance failed.
Much of what was written was true: their vehicles were poorly maintained. The tanks tried to turn east, towards the city’s outskirts, but became bogged down in mud. But because the Ukrainian forces restricted access to the area the pattern of the battle has been little understood. Still less has been told of the cost to the Ukrainian side.
A tour of the villages at the column’s end provides some answers. The Russians came in waves, said Grigory Klymenko, who watched them go past his house on February 26. The first column had 280 vehicles, the second 170, stretching in a line from Borodyanka, west of Kyiv, south through Andriivka, to the town of Makariv, a mile north of the E40 highway.
A linked column flanked this one down roads to the west, crossing the highway and ending south of the village of Motyzhyn. The first thrust, though, came to a stop in Makariv.
Northwest of Makariv the burnt remains of a Ukrainian tank lie in a ploughed field. Drone photos of destroyed armour are generally assumed to be showing Russian models, but that is not always the case.
In the town, the defenders took up positions by the bridge. Nearby is the bakery which sold a locally celebrated white loaf, eulogised early in the conflict in articles by Andrei Kurkov, Ukraine’s internationally celebrated novelist. It had been evacuated, and a company of Ukrainian troops was billeted in its dormitory. At 5.40am on March 7 it took a direct hit from a cruise missile, killing more than 30, said Anatoliy Denysenko, a territorial defence captain who led the rescue attempts. “Some were still in their sleeping bags,” he said.
All along the column’s route lies more evidence of the fighting. At the junction of the E40 a business park was mauled by air strikes as the Russians tried to fight their way on to it. The highway would have given direct access to the city.
The Russians also attacked farther to the east, from Motyzhyn, south of the E40, but again they were held up. The remains of two Russians tanks, marked with the column’s trademark “V”, lie next to a stork’s nest east of the business park, showing the limits of their attack.
Frustrated, the invaders turned on Motyzhyn’s mayor, Olga Sukhenko, 50. She was shot dead on March 23, along with her husband Ihor and son Oleksandr, according to her son-in-law. The bodies were found in a shallow grave on April 2, after the Russian withdrawal.
The Russians were unrelenting even when residents tried to flee: the road south from Motyzhyn went along a tree-lined lane to the next village, Yasnohorodka, but cars were shelled as they passed. It is unclear how many people died, but 37 bodies have been found nearby.
This was around the time satellite pictures suggest that the Russian artillery commanders, more confident as temperatures warmed and the ground dried, were trying to get away from the road where their vehicles had become sitting ducks, taking up positions under the cover of the treeline.
Mariia, mother of the Oleksienko brothers, had a good view of what happened next. “The artillery were in the fields over there, firing,” she said. “Then they would run for shelter from the return fire. They would park up with all the fuel tanks and armoured cars next to the houses, to hide behind us.”
A cat-and-mouse game ensued. Kybukevych’s men had a hideout in the hamlet of Chervona Hirka, on a rise just outside of Andriivka. With binoculars they could look down on the artillery, and phone the positions in.
The effect on the village was catastrophic. The main street is now lined with the skeletons of roofless houses, destroyed by the Ukrainian artillery fire which targeted the troops stationed inside and the ammunition trucks parked outside.
The quality of the information Kybukevych’s men was providing is evidenced by the fact that Grigory Klymenko’s house was untouched. Kybukevych, who is also village mayor, said not a single resident had been killed by shelling from either side during the occupation.
But male residents who encountered the Russian military police — increasingly paranoid, and with good reason — were not so lucky. One man was stopped on his bicycle and shot dead on the spot. Another was killed taking a stroll. In all, at least 13 villagers were murdered during the occupation, Kybukevych said, five of whom were working for him.
Then one day it was all over and the column left as quickly as it arrived. The retreating Russians told Klymenko that of the 2,500 men who had accompanied the first armoured column only 80 went home. Whether those figures are correct is impossible to say, but it is clear the Russians took a battering.
The villagers are now trying to make sense of the explosion of violence. Kybukevych is modest about his achievements, and clear-eyed about his men’s fate: they knew the risks they were taking, he said.
That was certainly the case for Vadym Ganiuk, whose wife Alona, 25, constantly reminded him of them. “I told him to be careful,” she said outside their home, where he met his end. “I was always terrified what would happen.”
Their five-year-old son was riding his bike nearby. His bed has a shocking souvenir: in some sort of statement, the Russians fired a single shot through his dinosaur-decorated pillow.
His father is in the stars, his mother has told him. When the sun is shining, he is smiling, and when it is raining, he is crying for them.
Their neighbour Viktor, who found Vadym’s and Vitaliy’s bodies, buried them in the field behind the house. He was also Alona’s godfather and he phoned to tell her that her fears had been realised. “I just screamed and screamed,” she said.
Before they left the Russians looted the abandoned houses, Grigory Klymenko said. But the villages which hosted the hated column have lost far more than washing machines and fridges.