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Russia’s New Assaults Put Ukraine Dangerously on the Defensive

To soldiers on the Donbas frontlines, U.S., European, and even Ukrainian officials still haven’t reckoned with the scale of the challenge

Danny Gold
June 03, 2022
Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images
Kramatorsk, in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, May 25, 2022Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images
Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images
Kramatorsk, in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, May 25, 2022Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

The air raid sirens in the fiercely contested Donbas region of eastern Ukraine operate very differently than elsewhere in the country. In cities like Kyiv, in Kharkiv, in Lviv, the sirens ring out for 60 seconds or so, enough time to let people know to seek shelter if they are so inclined, though these days most aren’t. Then there will be another siren, maybe 10 minutes later, maybe 30, to let everyone know that the threat has passed. Here in the east, in cities like Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, the sirens are continuous. They go for hours sometimes, a constant loud whine that animates both day and night, replete with intermittent explosions.

War is not new to southeastern Ukraine. It began eight years ago, with the outbreak of Russia’s hybrid invasion. Some of the towns and cities were held by the Russian-backed separatists for months in 2014 before Ukrainian forces pushed them back to sections of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts that have since been occupied Russian territory. The frontlines between Ukrainian and Russian forces here were mostly static before Russia launched its new invasion in February. After repeated failures and strategic blunders in other parts of the country, Russian forces have been gaining ground—and are now concentrated for a new, terrifying phase of the war that could well prove catastrophic for Ukraine’s hopes of liberating the entire country.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has called the situation in the Donbas “extremely difficult”; his spokesman, Serhiy Nikiforov, has said that Ukrainian forces are outnumbered seven to one. Zelensky has also stated that Ukraine is losing 50 to 100 soldiers a day.

On a hill overlooking the contested city of Lyman, we stand with members of Ukraine’s territorial defense forces and watch large smoke plumes form. Down below us is the Siverskyi Donets river, one of the Ukranians’ greatest allies at the moment. If the Russians hope to take Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, and the entirety of the Donbas, they’ll likely need to cross the river. Russians have had notable failures crossing rivers in recent weeks, and their incompetence has become something of a war meme.

Does it bother them that the Russians are just on the other side of the river? “It’s hard to get here,” one solider answers, noting that a few days ago they actually tried to cross the river but the open fields on the eastern side allow for easy targets for Ukrainian artillery. “Our army, the artillery, didn’t allow them to come closer, so they went to Lyman,” he adds.

Still, the Russians have had a string of successes here in the east as they have battered the cities of Lyman, Severodonetsk, and Lysychans’k. After attempts at rapid advances in other parts of the country failed miserably, the Russian military seems to have settled on a new strategy of bombarding cities with heavy amounts of artillery before slowly moving forward, little by little.

The soldiers with us in the hills operate carefully, telling us to move quickly and in pairs, while staying low and stopping only under the cover of sparse trees, for fear of being spotted by drones. Outgoing artillery booms from somewhere behind us, as they communicate with targeting teams over walkie talkies. The Russian military has been using helicopters and jets to hit positions all around Lyman. “Our main problem is the sky, open sky. They have big advantages of the sky, and this sometimes spoils everything,” says a soldier named Hussein. He adds, “We should go, they’re going to answer [our artillery] soon.”

Hussein had introduced himself earlier in perfect English. Originally from the nearby city of Konstantinovka, Hussein is the son of a Lebanese father and Ukrainian mother who met studying dentistry in Donetsk in 1978. They had him a few years later. An engineer, he spent 12 years working in Texas for a thermal manufacturing company. He also worked in Moscow for a time. “This is what is actually surprising,” he says of the Russian invasion. “I know those people, I know the culture, but I don’t understand what they’re doing now. This is something unbelievable, man.”

Hussein was living in Lebanon when the war started, and he immediately came to Ukraine to volunteer for the military. “I came here to fight because this is my homeland, and I refuse the Russian ‘peace’ and Russian ‘democracy,’” he says. “I’m fighting for my freedom, and for those old people who left their homes, everything they accumulated during their life was left and lost, children that were killed, women that were raped and killed, Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, this is what I’m fighting for. I will never forgive them.”

The war has entered a grueling phase of attrition, and Hussein says there’s active combat every day on the other side of the river, but despite reports of territorial losses and Russian advancement, he’s not entirely dismayed. “We feel comfortable. But of course we are worried,” he says. “Everyone who does think and has his brain there is worried, he’s afraid, we are human beings. But we believe in our mission, we believe in our victory.”

As talk turns to memories of his life in the United States, Hussein’s mind is temporarily occupied with thoughts of a different river: the Guadalupe, near his former hometown of San Marcos, Texas. Asked what he misses most about it, he doesn’t hesitate to answer: “Hamburger and beer and tubing and Texas steak and country music and happy hour,” he says. His answer to what he doesn’t miss about the States is more succinct: “New York.”

Hussein offers to lead us around the small village of Pryshyb, located beneath the hills on the river bank, made up of dozens of brick and stone houses spread across dirt roads. It’s incredibly idyllic in the warm spring weather of mid-May, picturesque, and there’s even a national park right nearby. “If I stay alive and the war is over, maybe I’ll buy a little house in a village, with a small piece of land I’ll take care of,” Hussein says. “I’ll buy some ducks, go fishing. Of course, I hope to meet my father again, and bring him here.”

The villages here do not yet share the same scars of those near Kharkiv. The Russian military has yet to concentrate its weapons on them, and have not occupied the area. Still, most of the residents have left. Hussein takes us to meet a middle-aged woman and her mother, who have stayed despite their neighbor’s house being hit by a shell.

Lena and her mother are in the backyard, cooking a stew over a fire. Lena tells us there are about 15 families left in the village despite there being no water, gas, or electricity. She guides me through her neighbor’s backyard to show the damage done by a Russian shell. The house is smashed up, the windows shattered, just a pile of rubble. “We hope it will be better soon, there were already two hits and it wasn’t us so hopefully we’ll be lucky again,” she says.

The shelling is constant and loud at night, but she’s already adapted to it. “Of course I understand it’s not normal, but there’s no way around it, so we make do,” she adds.

She, too, wants to leave, like many of her neighbors, but she won’t abandon her mother. “My mom didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t want to leave her. The older generation, you can’t make them do anything,” she says, slightly exasperated.

A group of British volunteers show up to drop off food. Days earlier they had offered to take Lena and her 69-year-old mother, Nina, to evacuate, but they refused. “This is my home, this is my hometown. If I leave I’ll stay in some hostel full of people, some crowded place,” says Nina. “This is the place where I can keep my thoughts, there’s flowers, I can cook. I prefer my comfort more than my safety. I’m an old woman.”

Before we leave, I tell Hussein that we’re lucky we ran into him, that he has an amazing story, but he doesn’t see it that way. “It’s not an amazing story. It’s war, and it’s always sad. It’s always a nightmare,” he replies. “If I have kids I would never allow them to speak or to think about war. The word ‘war’ would be prohibited,” he says as we bid him goodbye.

It’s not an amazing story. It’s war, and it’s always sad. It’s always a nightmare.

When I arrive a few days earlier in Kramatorsk, the city just south of Slovyansk, it feels quite empty. The only people walking around are older women, most carrying plastic bags of groceries. I’ve seen reporters estimate that 70-80% of civilians have evacuated from the region. Still, the shared van-taxi I take from the hub of Dnipro, four hours away, is packed with people returning.

Over the next few days, though, the streets in both Kramatorsk and Slovyansk at times seem somewhat busy. Soldiers are everywhere, packing the supermarkets. At the only cafe open in Slovyansk, the Golden Cup, reporters with “press” patches on their flak jackets mix with soldiers in camouflage fatigues.

Ivan, the owner, is from Donetsk, the capital of the Donbas that has been occupied since 2014. “I lived and worked with war in Donetsk, now I live and work with war here. That’s life,” he tells me. Young, with a fade haircut and baggy T-shirt, he could pass for a Brooklyn hipster. He originally went to Odessa to escape the outbreak of the war in 2014, but came to Slovyansk and opened the cafe in November, for the simple reason that he thought this city of 100,000 people needed good coffee. His brother partnered with him.

After only four months of operating, war came to his new city. “After the invasion it was a shock, the first days we were thinking about our future, stay here or leave for another city,” Ivan says. “The first few weeks in March when we understood that the war would be long, we decided to stay here.”

It could not have been an easy decision. Shells fall on the city now, and the Russians are clearly aiming to encircle Slovyansk at some point in the possibly near future. I ask him why he has decided to stay. “People need good coffee,” he says with a laugh. “It’s my mission here, to do something that will be remembered for the war.”

Outside of the cafe, we strike up a conversation with Dima, a police officer from Lyman who has been fighting in the city. Dima paints a picture of a dedicated fighting force that is being outgunned and bombarded by the Russian military, of frequent air raids and a lack of capability to defend against them. “The fact that they’ve [the Americans] given us Howitzers—it’s all good and dandy but how many of them did they give us? For our little region, Slovyansk region and Kramatorsk region—five, seven, ten things. It’s too few. It’s ridiculous,” he says. “They don’t give us tanks, don’t give us air defense because they’re fucking worried that we’ll shoot Russia.”

Frustrations, and an increased willingness to express them, are growing among some of the soldiers on the Donbas fronts—both with a lack of support from Western nations who are slow to make heavy weapons deliveries, and with Ukrainian leaders who they think are not recognizing the sacrifices of those from, and fighting, in the region.

“You look and you see that there are priorities—big cities. Kharkiv… Kyiv is the most important… But what about us? Do we not want to live on our land, in our home? We worked honestly, earned money honestly. To be left without all this? And OK if it’s just without a home, but what about being left without your loved ones?” he says, growing impassioned.

Dima says the Russians, too, are taking heavy losses, but they just send waves and waves of new soldiers and equipment, unleashing bombardments of artillery and air strikes no matter how tough a resistance Ukrainian forces are able to mount. He says that Ukrainians are in desperate need of promised heavy weapons from the west. “Each of their delays, each of their ‘It’s a pity to give it away’—it’s our lives, hundreds of lives every day,“ he says. “How many times have we asked to close the sky? They won’t do it. Everything that’s happening here right now, you can call those EU countries who didn’t want to close the sky—we asked for it, we don’t just ask for food or something after all, we ask to close the sky! You can call them partners in crime of what’s happening here.”

We head in the direction of Bakhmut one morning, a city extremely close to the converging Russian axes of attack coming from Popasna and Severodonetsk. The road is mostly empty except for various soldiers speeding back and forth in civilian trucks and vans. At a crossroads a few miles north, we come upon a few dozen soldiers seeking shelter under the trees lining the sides of the road. They crouch and smoke cigarettes as a tank hidden in the trees revs up and rumbles off in the distance.

A grizzled, middle-aged soldier named Yuri tells us that the men have just rotated out of the frontline after six weeks of fighting and are now getting some much needed rest. “We didn’t see water for 40 days, even to wash our faces,” says Yuri. “The water is only for drinking.”

Conditions for Ukrainian soldiers all along this eastern front have been tough as the Russians continuously pound the area with heavy artillery and air strikes, constantly using drones to assess strike locations. He tells us the Russians are advancing from all directions, trying to find a weak spot to push forward. Explosions in the distance are constant.

“We need heavy weapons: howitzers, tanks. Javelins are not enough,” Yuri says. “They’ve got howitzers, tanks, planes, helicopters. This war and the next are going to be wars of equipment,” he adds, noting that this battle is nothing like the one fought here in 2014. Instead, he says, it’s more comparable to 1941, a battle of vehicles and equipment.

“You see, it’s hard to fight people who have no conscience,” he says. “They situate themselves in towns, they know we won’t shell them, while they bomb and launch missiles to peaceful towns hundreds of miles from the frontline, and then they’re offended no one likes them! You go into someone’s flat, you rob and kill, and then you’re offended, ‘Why is it that no one likes us?’”

Yuri is from a town called Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv, hundreds of miles away. He served in the Soviet army for a number of years when he was a young man, and signed up as a volunteer when this war started. “Say hello to America,” he tells me, smiling. “A part of my motherland is there, my daughter, my granddaughter.” His daughter is 34, lives in Silicon valley, and is married to a programmer who works for Google, he says proudly.

Our driver, who has been talking to a nearby group of soldiers, informs us that the Russians are two kilometers away, and though it seems a little unlikely that they’re that close, we decide to leave—quickly. Shelling and explosions continue through each night we’re there. There’s constant talk of potential Russian encirclements, of cauldrons, of bubbles and sieges. A few days later, the news is confirmed that Lyman has fallen as the U.S. debate over providing long-range and heavy weapons continues. (On May 31, the Biden administration announced its intention to provide long-range rocket systems on the condition Ukraine will not use them to strike targets inside Russia.)

War in the Donbas appears to be settling in for the long haul, and it will be won not only in the declarations of powerful politicians, but here in the trenches by men and women like Yuri, Hussein, and Dima, who fight only to be able to once again lead normal lives in their homeland.

I think back to something Dima, the frustrated soldier, told me outside the coffeeshop before we parted ways.

“I lost my home in Lyman. I just want to liberate my town and come back and live there… If we had an opportunity, if we had equipment and artillery to recapture our town. We don’t want [the Russian city of] Rostov or something, we just want to live in our town, in our country, you know? That’s what we’re fighting for. We’re simply fighting for our freedom, for the freedom to live freely in our town, in our country.”

Danny Gold (@dgisserious) is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who covers conflict and crime. He also makes The Underworld Podcast.

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