While there have been some significant successes for Ukraine in its summer offensive in recent days, in the north-east of the country Kyiv’s forces are struggling to contain Russian troops on the offensive.

The main concern is the small town of Kupyansk in the Kharkiv region of eastern Ukraine, where Moscow’s forces have dramatically increased its shelling of both Kupyansk and the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) positions defending it in recent days.

What’s the latest?

On Wednesday evening, Ukrainian Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky, warned the situation was worsening in the town.

“Due to the complication of the situation in the Kupyansk axis, I worked most of the day with units that lead the defense on the approaches to the city,” he said.

“The enemy is trying to break through the defenses of our troops every day, in different directions, with assault squads consisting mainly of convicts, with the aim of blockading and then capturing Kupyansk.”

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Michael Clarke, a military expert and former head of the Royal United Services Institute, told the Financial Times that Russia’s offensive actions in the area is the only part of the frontlines where Moscow is showing any sort of “strategic innovation.”

He added: “There’s a kind of a symmetry here between what the Ukrainians are doing in Kherson — trying to give the Russians something else to worry about further west — and what the Russians are trying to do in Kupyansk — trying to give the Ukrainians something to worry about in the north.”

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Why is Kupyansk so important?

Kupyansk is a major rail hub with five different lines intersecting in the town– one of which leads directly into Russia – making it a hugely important strategic objective when Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The town was occupied just three days after the start of Russia’s offensive, largely thanks to its pro-Russian mayor Hennadiy Matsehora, who surrendered Kupyansk without a fight.

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Ukrainian forces, fully aware of how important the rail link was to the Russians, destroyed a key rail bridge into the town attempting to slow the Russian advance.

Matsehora allegedly helped them find another route into the town. He was charged with treason but in a rather poetic twist, was later arrested by Russia for unknown reasons in July of the same year.

Meanwhile, Kupyansk became the de facto seat of the Russian-backed Kharkiv military-civilian administration.

Russia was shipping in badly needed supplies and reinforcements via the town for its ongoing offensive in eastern Ukraine, making it a prime target for Kyiv’s counteroffensives at the end of last summer.

On Sep. 10, 2022, after a lightning offensive Kupyansk and many other towns and cities were liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces (AFU).

A Financial Times article on the battle for Kupyansk was titled: “The 90 km journey that changed the course of the war in Ukraine.”

But the joy of liberation was short-lived – Russian forces retreated and set up new defensive positions within artillery range of the town and Kupyansk has been shelled relentlessly ever since, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians.

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How are Kupyansk civilians faring now?

In a sign of how difficult the situation is, last week a mandatory evacuation was ordered in 37 settlements in the Kupyansk district due to the increase in Russian attacks in the region.

“I’m ill, and I have to get my grandson out,” 53-year-old evacuee Vira Vunesku told AFP as she readied to leave the frontline town of Kupyansk.

“My condition is serious. I was in a hospital in Kharkiv, came back home for a bit, and now I have to leave again.”

Could Russia recapture the town?

At this stage nothing can be ruled out and retaking Kupyansk would clearly be a significant achievement for Russia.

Not only would it mean the reestablishment of the train link with Russia, but the Kremlin would be sure to make the most of the propaganda potential of recapturing territory liberated by Ukraine in last year’s counteroffensives.

At the moment, Ukraine’s forces appear to be withstanding the assaults but Russia's drive in Kupyansk has sought to draw Ukrainian troops away from Kyiv’s own counteroffensive operations elsewhere.

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