For six months, Russia was in control of Balakliya in eastern Ukraine. Then everything happened very quickly. Reuters checked the documents left behind by the soldiers who fled. A chronology of the hasty withdrawal shows why the Russian military was already on the ground.

Shortly after the war began, Russian troops occupied Balaklija in north-eastern Ukraine. The Russians were in charge here for six months. The Ukrainians refrained from attacking until July. In mid-September, Balaklija was the first major city that Ukraine was able to recapture in its counter-offensive.

In their hasty retreat, the Russian soldiers left thousands of pages of documents at their headquarters. Reporters from the Reuters news agency have now spotted more than a thousand of them. Among them are an anonymous soldier’s notebook, records of calls from commanders, and details of battles, soldiers killed, and equipment destroyed.

From the documents emerges a chronology of the withdrawal of Russian troops. It reveals the worn-out inner life of the military, the collapse of morale and discipline and the combat stress of the troops, some of which were only 20 percent operational.

In mid-July, the Ukrainians attacked the Russian front at Hrakove near Balaklija. A base had to withdraw. “Low ammunition,” an anonymous staff officer wrote in his notebook found by Reuters.

With reinforcements and mobilized attack helicopters, the Russian troops succeeded in pushing back the Ukrainians. But a report by the Balakliya commander, Colonel Ivan Popov, showed the cost: seven men died, 39 were injured, and 17 were reported missing. Five soldiers had to be treated for “acute stress reaction”.

On July 24, the soldier noted in his notebook that 12 other soldiers were killed in a Himar attack. The morale and discipline of the soldiers were already at rock bottom. An officer is said to have refused the order of his company commander to “send his men to the artillery fire”, according to his father. There is no confirmation for this.

At the end of July, according to documents, the officers assumed that the Ukrainians were preparing a counteroffensive. The goal: “To take control of Balaklija.”

Russian military electronics experts came to Balaklija in early August. They should check whether the Russian “Pole-21” system can be modified to be able to repel American Himar missiles.

The Ukrainians continued to attack, destroying at least three command bases in the area. The commanders in Balaklija moved more and more troops. This emerges from the daily reports and the notes of the anonymous soldier.

At the end of August, full troop strength was only 71 percent. A unit had only 23 percent of the original strength. Within a month, the Russians lost, among other things, 20 of 24 anti-tank weapon systems. They used commercial drones instead of combat drones. These were flown by soldiers. But they were hardly trained for it.

A reporter reports that some soldiers slept on grain conveyor belts in the area. Those who could fight at all were unmotivated, frustrated, stressed. One officer described survival as a game of roulette. “Either you’re lucky or you’re unlucky. The punches can land anywhere.”

A soldier had noted August 27 as “the worst day” in his calendar. One of his friends died in his arms. “Attack” or “Escape from the encirclement” was on his calendar several times. Drones and ammunition were no longer delivered, and his comrades were killed every day. The Ukrainians attacked. “Our artillery was not enough in response,” the soldier noted.

On September 6, the Ukrainians launched a major offensive. The troops’ command post, a bunker, was largely destroyed by US Himars rocket launchers. The entire building was on fire. Dozens of bodies were recovered from the rubble, according to the facility’s former director. There is no official information on exactly how many soldiers were killed.

Headquarters was completely mined. “They really protected themselves,” the former manager of the facility, who managed it before the Russians invaded, told Reuters. But that was in vain.

Local residents reported seeing wounded soldiers limping down the streets and throwing away their weapons. There was a “traffic jam of fleeing Russians,” one of them told Reuters. The “pure chaos”.

In addition to the command center, the building in the city of 30,000 also housed torture rooms and prison camps for Ukrainian veterans. The commander of the troops was Colonel Ivan Popov. That is clear from the report. He was a member of the 11th Army Corps of the Russian Baltic Fleet. Conscripts from the Russian-controlled Luhansk region were also added to the corps.

The Reuters reporters also found a table showing the soldiers’ wages on site. On average, a Russian non-commissioned officer earned 202,084 rubles per month plus an allowance, the equivalent of 3,293 euros. A separatist non-commissioned officer earned significantly less, 91,200 rubles, the equivalent of 1,486 euros.

So far, no comment has come from Russia on the Reuters publications. The Kremlin’s press service referred questions to the Defense Ministry, which did not comment.

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