The struggle to deter the Russians in eastern Ukraine

They were nervous. Here, on the hardest line of the conflict front, Russian air strikes are approaching and the commotion of war is growing. The incessant pounding of artillery, which struck the village for 10 miles, echoed through the valley below, interrupting their prayer. “We don’t know who is being shot at and why,” said Valentina, 65, who said she was too afraid to say her last name.

The eastern region of Ukraine, known as the Donbass, has become the most critical battlefield at this stage of the war between Russian invaders and Ukrainian forces trying to defend their homeland. According to intelligence estimates, Russian President Vladimir Putin has aimed at full control of the region as he withdraws his forces from the outskirts of Kiev. Analysts believe that Putin will redeploy forces here for a new offensive and in an effort to save face after humiliating failures elsewhere, creating the ground for increasingly fierce battles for control.


Control areas as of April 1

Sources: Institute for War Studies, AEI Critical Threats Project

Territories under Russian rule since April 1

Sources: Institute for War Studies, AEI Critical Threats Project

Territories under Russian rule since April 1

separatist

controlled area

Sources: Institute for the Study of War

This week, Washington Post reporters spent two days traveling the region, within six miles of advancing Russian troops. They interviewed Ukrainian military and military personnel, local officials in cities under increasing pressure from Russian bombing, and frightened civilians whose destroyed homes, schools, churches and businesses suddenly found themselves on the front line of the war, which is getting closer.

“It’s like a dream, I can’t believe it’s happening,” said 32-year-old Victoria Debedeva, who fled with her son to the village last month, believing the village would be safer than the neighboring town of Sloviansk. “Nowhere is safe, and the Russians are getting closer every day.”

As she spoke, another loud explosion erupted in the distance. “This is a Russian air strike,” said a Ukrainian serviceman hastily driving through a small town. Tired comrades in arms led him, whispering to share information with journalists.

The war has brought newcomers to the area as people flee cities close to fighting. Respondents watched as Ukrainian military vehicles swept through their village, transporting upset young people to the sound of war. Hundreds of heavily armed soldiers are now roaming the small villages and rural towns dotted with the region.

Twenty miles away, the mayor of the strategically important city of Izyum announced on Friday that Russian forces had taken control of the city after three weeks of fierce fighting. Russian troops surrounded the city on March 26, beating those trapped with air strikes and volleys of heavy artillery. Local officials said 20,000 residents and Ukrainian fighters still in the city were facing a “humanitarian catastrophe” and an uncertain future on the part of Russian troops.

“The battle for Raisins is not over,” Mayor Valery Marchenko said in a written statement issued Friday night. “Soon our army will definitely liberate the city from the Russian occupiers and save the people of Izyum.”

Raisins are located on the highest point of the hill in the Kharkiv region, on a strategic plot of land called “Kremenets” or “Flint Hill”. A lofty position rises above the hills that define this land. From there the main roads and surrounding villages are visible for miles. Its capture would give Russian troops the ability to control the surrounding areas and restrict the movement of Ukrainian troops in any counteroffensive.

“Raisins are the last battle position of our troops in front of the Donetsk region, the city is the gateway to the Donbass,” said Maxim Strelnik, a deputy of the City Council. He said Russian forces appear to be trying to encircle Ukrainian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk, two provinces that are part of the Donbass. Russia also supports separatists who have fought Ukrainian forces for years and now seem to prefer a military campaign to take full control.

The Ukrainian military announced on Thursday that Russian forces were gathering forces ahead of a planned offensive in the neighboring regional capital of Kramatorsk, just under 30 miles from Izyum. If successful, it would jeopardize the supply line of Ukrainian forces, which had endured several weeks of fighting, to avoid being surrounded by Russian forces.

As the fighting approached Kramatorsk, local government officials and engineers from the Ukrainian military set up concrete barricades and anti-tank hedgehog barricades throughout the city along all possible ways of approaching the invading troops. Fortified artillery firing positions camouflaged by Russian reconnaissance units were spotted in wooded areas around major towns and villages.

For two days, The Post reporters watched more than 15 trucks of heavily armed Ukrainian servicemen on their way to the fighting in Donetsk. Military columns consisted of at least two dozen combat vehicles, including air defense systems, armored personnel carriers and tanks. They were backed by groups of soldiers patrolling country roads as excavators cut through chernozem to create fortified trenches capable of withstanding Russian artillery strikes.

Ukraine’s defensive lines near the borders that define the separatist territories remained largely intact, despite continuous rocket fire. Ukrainian officials also claim that separatist fighters from the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, as Russia calls these areas, also used white phosphorus, a highly flammable and deadly weapon. But the positions of the Ukrainian military, hardened by eight years of war, held on, preventing the possible advance of Russia from the eastern flank.

The governor of the Donetsk region Pavel Kirilenko perceived his role as a wartime leader who helps to organize activities to defend his homeland. He said in an interview Tuesday that after more than a month of war the days are blurring together. He said he spends long hours reviewing the latest reports of damage from Russian shelling and sending calls to local officials who are organizing the evacuation of civilians.

The small amount of sleep he gets is regularly interrupted by air raid sirens. A large network of air defense systems in the region is targeting Russian bombers entering Ukrainian airspace. Just 20 miles from active combat, Kramatorsk was spared destruction in places such as Mariupol and Kharkiv, largely because these air defense systems kept Russian pilots in fear and stopped many missiles.

Kirilenko is also concerned about the risk of being surrounded by Russian forces. “We look at the map all the time, every day, several times a day,” he said. As he spoke, with a Glock pistol on his thigh and an assault rifle on his chest, he was interrupted by an air raid siren that forced him and visiting journalists to seek refuge in a bomb shelter.

“The risk, of course, exists, and we are strengthening those places where the enemy may be targeted,” so that the “Russian occupiers were not just rejected, but completely destroyed,” – said Kirilenko.

The training goes beyond strengthening defensive positions. Deep within Ukraine’s territory, its security services have stepped up efforts to identify suspected collaborators and Russian intelligence services operating in the region. Several were taken prisoner.

Ukrainian special services found them with equipment to document the coordinates of the positions of the Ukrainian military. Officials found evidence that they were helping Russian troops adjust artillery fire in real time. In addition, the Secret Service of Ukraine arrested agents who provided images and videos for propaganda on Russian social networks.

Kirilenko said that focusing on these agents ensures that Ukrainians “will not be stabbed in the back.” He suspended civilian rule and imposed military control in 11 districts near Kramatorsk, previously controlled by the opposition party. On Tuesday, he asked President Vladimir Zelensky to add another.

Since the start of the war in late February, Ukraine’s secret service has identified more than 550 suspects in collaboration in the Donetsk region accused of treason. Many are in Russian-controlled territory. A Russian ballistic missile strike on March 6 destroyed regional offices of Ukrainian intelligence, making it even more difficult to hunt down Russian collaborators. A powerful explosion destroyed the nearest kindergarten.

In some cases, collaborators included local government officials who provided effective reconnaissance to Russian forces by shelling neighbors and friends trapped in their own cities, Ukrainian officials said. They also used their detailed knowledge of the local area to help the advancing Russian troops.

In Izyum, Strelnik said, a deputy of the city executive committee from the opposition party led a Russian armored column along an unguarded section of the road to avoid Ukraine’s defensive positions. Ukrainian forces defending the city were surrounded by betrayal, he said. After a week of heavy fighting, the Russians controlled the city.

Civilians continue to flee the area in record numbers. About 4,000 people from Donetsk and Luhansk regions are evacuated daily by buses, trains and personal vehicles, local authorities said. Those families who can evacuate on their own are waiting for hours in dead cars in kilometer-long queues at fortified checkpoints to check their documents.

Inside the Kramatorsk railway station, the number of those fleeing the advancing Russian troops has increased in recent days. Many hours are waiting to take a seat on the four trains that depart daily towards the relative security of western Ukraine. Hundreds of people, mostly women and children, were waiting for one train to Lviv on Tuesday, organized by local authorities.

Many of the last to arrive at the station were from Sloviansk. According to Vadim Lyakh, chairman of the city executive committee Vadim Lyakh, at least a fifth of those living in the city, located a few kilometers from Russia’s major artillery and deadly tornado jets, have fled.

“Now the whole city is the front line,” said Lilia Borisova, who decided to evacuate her hometown after a difficult night of Russian bombing. She packed what could fit in two suitcases and took her teenage daughter to Kramatorsk train station, hoping to get on a train that evacuated civilians.

“We try to stay positive. Our parents, our husbands have returned to defend the city, ”said Taesya Samoilenka, who left her husband in Sloviansk to defend her home. Her eyes filled with tears for a moment as she talked about her husband, looking away from her two children as she gathered.

Returning to the village of Khrestishche, those who remained nervously waited while Russian troops approached their homes. “If we survive, I will go on foot with suitcases,” said Dzyabedzeva, standing near a shop in the center of the village.

As she spoke, her voice cracked with emotion and she wiped away tears. She repeated over and over again: “I don’t want to live in Russia. I don’t want to live in Russia. “

Eugene Lakatosh and Wojciech Grzedinski contributed to this report.

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