LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — The final road into the Ukrainian city of Luhansk was engulfed in flames. A huge bonfire raged in a parking lot where a group of civilian and military vehicles had parked minutes earlier. Anton, our military driver, floored the accelerator as we passed at around 90 mph. As we speed down the street, three Ukrainian tanks roll in the other direction, right on the front line.
The tiny portion of Luhansk Oblast, still under Ukrainian control, is now the center of the increasingly vicious war entering its fourth month. On all other fronts like Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine has won a string of crushing victories, freeing its two capitals from the hell of Russian shelling. But here in the Donbass, Russia’s arduous advance continues. Reducing Russia’s war aims from taking over all of Ukraine to encircling Ukrainian troops in that region is little comfort to the men and women defending the front lines.
In the distance, plumes of smoke rose from a series of artillery strikes on Ukrainian critical infrastructure in the area. “The Russians are doing here exactly what they did in Mariupol… they’re just destroying the city block by block with artillery,” a tall, blond Ukrainian major nicknamed “Spartak” recently told The Daily Beast visiting the contested urban sprawl. The 23-year-old from the western metropolis of Lviv is now the deputy commander of a battalion fighting on the front line against Russia’s ruthless attack on the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. Soldiers typically avoid giving surnames for operational security reasons.
As artillery thundered around us, another soldier – a Major named Roman – told us: “It’s noticeably quiet here today because the Russian troops have taken Rubishne near Severodonetsk and are now trying to reposition their troops. Once they’ve done that, they start again.”
It didn’t sound quiet to us. The constant bang of GRAD rocket launchers and howitzers filled the sky, and the impacts were close enough to shake the earth. Roman pulled out a map on his phone to show us the positions of Russian forces. Exhausted from three months of fighting on this front, he is pessimistic about Ukraine’s prospects in Luhansk. “If our situation doesn’t improve, we could be surrounded here.”
Like the rest of Vladimir Putin’s war, this offensive is not going entirely according to plan. In one of the biggest military blunders of the invasion, Russian forces recently attempted to throw a pontoon bridge across the Siversky Donets River near Bilhorivka and encircle Ukrainian troops from behind. Ukrainian scouts spotted them and artillery pulverized them, destroying dozens of armored vehicles and killing up to 450 soldiers. Despite this, the Russians continue to make slow and grueling but very real gains.
Roman is skeptical that help will come. “As far as I know, our goal here is to take the fire as far as possible to liberate Kharkiv, the Kherson direction,” he says with a sigh. “So of course we’ll have to hold out here for a while.” A common complaint from commanders here is that they have no answer to Russia’s overwhelming artillery barrage, which could completely level a city and leave soldiers unable to take defensive positions. Western-supplied artillery reaches the battlefield, but much more slowly than the Ukrainians would like.
There is no electricity or running water, so they drink from a well and use headlamps and candles for light. Even more crucial in an information war is that there is no access to the outside world. Russian radio constantly broadcasts propaganda about Russian advances across the country. At one point, Tatiana Malorezka, a resident, stopped and asked us, “What’s going on? The Russians say they took Severodonetsk?!” When we assure her that the Ukrainians are still holding the city, her relief is palpable. “My nerves just can’t take it anymore, you know? I don’t want the Russians to be here!”
Tatiana said she can live without electricity or running water under almost any circumstances, as long as it’s under the Ukrainian flag. “I can never live under Russian occupation,” she told us. “That’s the only thing that would make me leave.” She gave us three numbers of family members who fled to western Ukraine. “Please call them and tell them I and the rest of the family are fine,” she pleaded. One of the numbers was for her son, who is in the army and fighting at the front. She has not been able to contact him and has no way of knowing if he is dead or alive.
“My nerves just can’t take it anymore.”
Back in Sloviansk, we speak to Andrii, a soldier who is more optimistic about Ukraine’s chances in the region. “I think we’ll retake Rubizhne soon,” he says. “They want to flank from Kharkiv to Luhansk and push south through Luhansk and these cities. I heard information from our intelligence services that the Russians are all demoralized. You must understand why. They only fight for money and the stupid idea of being a “liberator”. They’re not fucking liberators. We are fighting for our people and our country and that is why we will win.”
Ukrainian officials estimate that thousands of civilians still live in the urban areas of Severodonetsk and Lysyhansk in Luhansk Oblast. They mostly live underground in shelters and bunkers. On the edge of a school in Lysychansk there is a building that the residents have converted into an emergency shelter. Most striking is the number of youths left behind – there are at least a dozen, ranging from infants to older teenagers.
Today, they say, there has been less shelling than before and residents have ventured outside. Sixteen-year-old Daniil, who trained as a car mechanic before the war, says they have hardly left the basement for a month because almost every building in Lysychansk was bombed, including their own. Above, one of the parents shows us three rooms of the school. On the table of one of them are two massive rocket fragments. The rooms look almost normal, but part of the roof is missing and the pantry is a debris-covered wreck.
As we leave, we take with us three women who chose to evacuate to the relatively safe Lysychansk in our car. One of them is 19-year-old Valeria, who was a student in Kharkiv when the war broke out. Instead of fleeing the region entirely, she wants to go straight to her grandmother in Lysychansk to take care of her. “My parents died when I was young and she is all I have left,” says Valeria.
When we ask her what she thinks of the war, she says she “doesn’t understand how this could have happened. Why couldn’t the men just sit down and find a way to avoid war?” Our translator Oleksiy replies: “And how do you expect to be able to sit down with people who just want to kill us and get rid of Ukraine completely?”
At that moment we hear a huge crack as shells rain down on the city we just left and Valeria silently stares out the window.
https://www.thedailybeast.com/vladimir-putin-could-actually-win-the-battle-for-luhansk-in-ukraine?source=articles&via=rss Vladimir Putin could actually win the battle for Luhansk in Ukraine