LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — The last road to the Ukrainian city of Luhansk was in flames. A huge bonfire raged in a parking space where a group of civilian and military vehicles had parked minutes before. Anton, our military driver, pushed the accelerator to the ground as we drove about 140 kilometers per hour. As we speed down the road, three Ukrainian tanks drive in the other direction directly towards the front line.
The small part of Luhansk Oblast still under Ukrainian control is now the center of an increasingly brutal war that is now entering its fourth month. On all other fronts, such as kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine saw a wave of landslide victories, relieving its two main cities from Russian bombardment hell. But here, in the Donbass, Russia’s meteoric advance continues. The reduction of Russia’s war aims from a takeover of all of Ukraine to an encirclement of Ukrainian troops in that region is hardly comforting for 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 are destroying the city block by block with artillery,” a tall, blonde-haired Ukrainian major who calls himself “Spartak” told The Daily Beast. during a recent visit to the embattled sprawl. The 23-year-old from the western city of Lviv is now the deputy commander of a battalion fighting on the front line against Russia’s ruthless assault on eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region . Soldiers generally avoid giving surnames for operational security reasons.
As the artillery thundered all around us, another of the soldiers – a major by the name of Roman – told us that “today it is remarkably quiet here, because Russian troops have taken Rubizhne near Severodonetsk and are now trying to reposition their forces. When they have done that, they will start again.
It didn’t feel quiet to us. The constant boom of GRAD rocket launchers and howitzers filled the sky, and the impacts were close enough to shake the earth. He pulled out a map on his phone to show us the positions of the Russian forces. Roman was exhausted after three months of fighting on this front and is pessimistic about the Ukrainian prospects in Lugansk. “If our situation doesn’t improve, we could be surrounded here.”
Like the rest of Vladimir Putin’s war, this offensive does not go entirely to plan. In one of the biggest military blunders of the invasion, Russian forces recently attempted to throw a pontoon bridge over the Siversky Donets River near Bilhorivka and surround Ukrainian troops from behind. Ukrainian observers 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 about the arrival of help. “I understand that our objective here is to shoot as much as possible to liberate Kharkiv, the direction of Kherson,” he said with a sigh. “So naturally we have to hold out here for a while.” A common complaint from commanders here is that they have no response to Russia’s overwhelming artillery barrages, which could completely raze a town and leave soldiers with nowhere to take up defensive positions. The artillery provided by the West reached 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. More importantly, in an information war, there is no access to the outside world. Russian radio continuously broadcasts propaganda about Russian advances throughout the country. At one point, Tatiana Malorezka, a resident, stopped and asked us, “What’s going on? The Russians say they’ve captured Severodonetsk?!” When reassured that the Ukrainians are still holding the city, her relief is palpable. “My nerves can’t take it anymore, you know? I don’t want the Russians here. !
Tatiana said she could live in almost any circumstance without electricity or running water as long as she was under the Ukrainian flag. “I could never live under Russian occupation,” she told us. “It’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 let them know me and the rest of the family are fine,” she pleaded. One of the numbers was for his son, who is in the military and fights on the front line. She was unable to contact him and has no way of knowing if he is dead or alive.
“My nerves can’t take it anymore.”
Back in Sloviansk, we chat with Andrii, a more optimistic soldier about Ukraine’s chances in the region. “I think we will soon take over Rubizhne,” he said. “They want to flank from Kharkiv to Luhansk and they want to go down south through Luhansk and those cities. I have heard reports from our intelligence agencies that the Russians are all demoralized. You must understand the reason. They only fight for money and the stupid idea that they are “liberators”. They’re not fucking liberators. We are fighting for our people and our land and that is why we will win.
Ukrainian authorities estimate that there are still thousands of civilians living in the urban areas of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in Luhansk Oblast. They mostly live underground in shelters and bunkers. On the outskirts of a school in Lysychansk is a building that locals have turned into a shelter. What is most striking is the number of young people who have stayed there – 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. Daniil, 16, who was apprenticed as a car mechanic before the war, says they barely left the basement in a month because of the bombings that hit almost every building in Lysychansk, including theirs. Upstairs, one of the parents shows us three rooms in the school. On the table of one of them are two huge rocket shards. The rooms look almost normal, but part of the roof is missing and the supply closet is a wreck covered in rubble.
As we leave, we take three women who have decided to evacuate to the relative safety of Lysychansk in our car with us. One of them is Valeria, 19, who was a student at Kharkiv University when the war broke out. Rather than fleeing the region altogether, she wants to go straight to her grandmother’s house in Lysychansk to take care of her. “My parents died when I was young, and she’s all I have left,” Valeria says.
When asked what she thinks of the war, she says she “doesn’t understand how it could have happened. Why couldn’t men… just sit down and find a way to avoid war. Our translator Oleksiy replies: “And how can you sit with people who just want to kill us and get rid of Ukraine completely?
Just then, we hear a huge crack as shelling rains down on the town we’ve just left, and Valeria stares silently out the window.