It’s midnight on Thursday, June 9 in downtown Kharkiv, two hours into the nightly curfew. The city of 1.5 million is in pitch darkness, the majority of its residents in bed. Bereft of humans, a shroud of deathly silence has fallen over the streets.

In the absence of streetlights, stars glimmer across the sky – a sight familiar in the countryside, not in a big city. A half-moon shines enough light to shape the contours of treetops and the crumbling neo-classical Stalinist blocks lining the city’s empty boulevards. It’s a scene of rare beauty – other-worldly and cinematic – a film noir without characters.

A flash of fire reflects off windows a few miles away. A second later the thunder crack of the explosion reverberates while the shockwave passes. Nearby doors and windows rattle. A few minutes later, another explosion – both from the same suburb. Kharkiv’s residents will find out in the morning which buildings were destroyed and how many were killed. They return to sleep, weighed down by expectation, their unconscious hearing sharply attuned to any further sounds that break the silence.

Beyond the city confines is a road that winds 40km through a handful of villages to the Russian border. It passes through Prudyanka, the northernmost village held by Ukrainian troops. A hamlet of 300 houses and a train station, Prudyanka is the start of a frontline which stretches 1000km in a crescent around the East and South of Ukraine – the largest battlefront Europe has seen since World War II. 

Many of the Ukrainian fighters around Prudyanka are local. They’re up against a better-armed enemy, but their battlefield advantage is motivation and crucially, better knowledge of the land. A handful of mobile artillery units roam the forest edges outside Prudyanka, lobbing a couple of shells per hour across verdant meadows at Russian-controlled positions in the hamlet of Tsupivka, only 3 kilometres away. This is the holding pattern of artillery warfare.

Gunners manage risk by moving quickly and keeping an eye out for enemy drones. Occasionally, a determined push to gain battlefield advantage results in a surge of artillery exchange but the biggest threat for either side comes from raid and destroy missions targeting their positions with grenade launchers and anti-tank weapons. Carried out by special operations forces under the cover of forest, these missions are the specialty of Ukraine’s army and were key to its success in pushing the Russians back from Kharkiv’s northern suburbs.

For ten weeks, Russian troops laid waste to Kharkiv’s northern suburbs, particularly Saltivka, the most densely populated residential area in Ukraine and home to one-third of Kharkiv’s population. Those who didn’t join the exodus of refugees were confined to months of subterranean life in the area with no water, gas, or electricity. Many of the estimated 600 civilian deaths in the Kharkiv region took place in Saltivka, their lives lost in the crush of rubble following Russia’s missile attacks on the area’s distinctive 12 and 16-story white panel residential blocks.

A concerted effort to push Russian forces back from Saltivka began in May not long after they were defeated around Kyiv. Spearheading this effort were Ukraine’s Special Ops forces. Deployed on dozens of missions to harass, demoralise and destroy the Russian army they succeeded in pushing them beyond artillery range of Saltikva.

“Our main task on these missions is simple – to destroy enemy equipment or personnel and leave as clearly and quietly as possible,” Special Ops commander Anatoliy Sydorenko tells The Currency from an office in downtown Kharkiv. The stocky 29-year-old speaks dispassionately and authoritatively about his work. “I spend most of my time planning these operations.”

A veteran of the 2014 war in Donbas, Sydorenko recently set up a new battalion, the first in the Kharkiv region to adopt the much-celebrated “Azov” name. According to him, his battalion is well-equipped with hi-tech weaponry, thermal binoculars and drones as were their Russian counterparts who they occasionally come across in the forest. “We met a group of them only three days ago. Like us, these guys are not ordinary infantry. They’ve very experienced and highly professional. There was an intense firefight. No-one on our side was hurt, but I know we injured at least three of theirs.”

One of Sydorenko’s comrades is a paratrooper whose notoriety spread among special ops circles in the region following a particularly dramatic operation in the first days of the war. For security purposes, we use his nom de guerre, Adam, “A Russian military column rolled through my village on February 24,” he tells The Currency outside the bombed cultural centre of Slatyne town, south of the frontline. “I knew immediately it meant war.” With only 50 men armed with Kalashnikovs, against 200 Russians with tanks, the odds were against them but Adam’s years of training as a paratrooper kicked in and he cooked up a plan.

They split into three groups and started shooting. The firefight lasted for most of the day, with fatalities on both sides. They succeeded in cornering one group of Russians who had no way of knowing how few men they were fighting. Adam’s battle plan succeeded when the Russians abandoned their positions and fled. “We took four tanks, four personal carriers and enough ammunition for a week. With this equipment, I started my own battalion.” Speaking, like Sydorenko, in the serious, authoritative manner of someone who had taken lives in battle, Adam’s demeanour is all the more remarkable given he just turned 23.

As the sun rises over Kharkiv, Adam and Sydorenko rejoin hundreds of their fellow soldiers to engage in battle around the villages north of the city. 120 km along the frontline to the southeast, thousands of their comrades are fighting near the town of Izyum and 150m beyond that, tens of thousands, in the battle for Severodonetsk. Members of Zelensky’s team have put at over 100, the number of daily Ukrainian military deaths along the frontline. 

Civilian residents of Kharkiv wake up to discover that a cafe, a grocery store, and school library in the city’s Novobavarskyi neighbourhood had been destroyed the night before. Three people died. Five were injured. The number of casualties from missiles in downtown Kharkiv pales in comparison to those along the frontlines but these figures form a familiar daily toll for a country that, after 100 days, has become accustomed to war.