Russia’s war in Ukraine has been defined by tragedy, brutality and a battle of wills, but no campaign in Ukraine has shown this more than the seven-month-long fight for Kharkiv, one commander told Fox News.
"If people want to understand this war fully," Commander of the 127th Brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces of Kharkiv Roman Hryshchenko said speaking from a post in Kharkiv, "there is no war between Ukraine and Russia."
"There is a war of good [and] evil," he said.
Moscow believed its mammoth military force would be able to swiftly take Ukraine following its invasion on Feb. 24, but Kharkiv – described as Ukraine’s "Eastern gate" – proved that a soldier’s will to fight outstrips brute force.
"When we talk about the 127th Brigade, it should be understood that before the full-scale invasion, almost all of them had never held a weapon in their hands," he said in an interview translated by the Ukraine Frontline Media Platform.
Hryshchenko, who is called "Uncle Roma" by his troops, explained that the 127th Brigade was established as a volunteer force following Russia’s invasion, with just 30% of its troops having had previous soldiering experience in eastern Ukraine.
"The rest are entirely civilian people," he said of the roughly 5,000 strong fighting force. "More than 70% [had] never held a weapon in their hands but who came to defend their land."
Moscow was never able to fully occupy Kharkiv despite its best efforts – a defeat made even more impressive by the fact that the Ukrainian region shares a border with Russia.
However, its proximity to Russia meant the brigade would see some of the most consistently brutal warfare, not only in Ukraine, but in Europe since World War II.
By Feb. 26, two days after Moscow’s "special military operation" began, senior U.S. defense officials assessed that the "heaviest fighting" was occurring in and around Kharkiv.
Two days later, Human Rights Watch found that Russian forces were already using banned weaponry by deploying cluster munitions on civilian targets.
However, the brutality Kharkiv saw in the early days of the war was just the beginning, in what would become a seemingly David vs Goliath battle front.
It would be another three months before the region saw some reprieve, as fighting stalled after the brigade successfully launched a counter-offensive and pushed Russian troops back across their national lines.
The British defense ministry chalked it up to Russia's "inability" to understand the level of resistance it would receive from civilian populations across Ukraine.
"You know Kharkiv very poorly," Hryshchenko said in explanation as to why the region proved so difficult for the invading forces to take, despite its proximity to Russia. "Our people are made of iron and concrete."
"The enemy is not fighting our army, it is fighting the civilian population," he added.
Russian forces would grow weary of their limited ground advances and began an intense shelling campaign throughout the summer, while Kyiv urged its citizens to hold tight as reports surfaced suggesting a major counter-offensive was on the way.
The 127th Brigade launched the long-awaited offensive in early September.
Several factors enabled the brigade’s success including troop training and the armament of Western weaponry.
Within two weeks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy championed "victory" from the front lines as he walked down the city center.
The successful campaign carried out by the civilian-turned soldier brigade would be not only critical for Kharkiv, but vital for security assurances across Ukraine, Fox News was told.
"Our unit was assigned the role of restraining the enemy's forces, ensuring fire activity, and preventing the Russian reserves from going to reinforce the breakthrough line in the south. The main task was to bind the enemy's reserves," Hryshchenko said.
The brigade now faces the task of keeping the "Eastern gate" secure from further Russian aggression.
"Since the beginning of the war, the city has been nicknamed Stalingrad 2022. We have survived, we are standing," head of the Kharkiv military garrison, Brigadier General of Justice Serhiy Mykolayovych Melnyk, told Fox News.
"What can break Kharkiv or Ukraine? Nothing," he added.
The brigadier general said his forces "expect villainy" from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"He will not calm down, absolutely not, and we know and expect that he will try to do something," he added. "We are fully prepared for it."