As part of their campaign to retake Ukraine’s eastern Donbas area, Russian military have entered the city of Severodonetsk. The bombing of the industrial centre is so heavy, according to one of the region’s governors, that they have stopped counting the victims.
Just a few days ago, I stood on a rooftop in Lysychansk, watching as its twin city, Severodonetsk, was blasted indiscriminately on the horizon. Every minute, shells landed on its length and breath. The city of Severodonetsk was on fire.
Lysychansk has been robbed of its vitality. Only a few people remain on the streets, which are virtually vacant. Artillery firing is a common occurrence. The dust from smoke and pulverised buildings clings to the air borne by the June breeze.
After failing to seize all of Ukraine, Russian soldiers are now focusing their efforts on the Donbas region, which includes the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. The entire city of Luhansk would be occupied if Severodonetsk and Lysychansk fell.
Russia is waging a war of forgetfulness here, rather than a war of attrition. And, for the time being, it is winning on this front.
The governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Haidai, has now stated that all key infrastructure in Severodonetsk has been destroyed. He previously stated that Ukrainian forces may be forced to leave the city and Lysychansk.
Rubizhne, the scene of devastation in a third city – just a short drive to the north during peacetime – demonstrates what Russia’s continuous artillery bombardment is capable of. Looking out into the distance from Lysychansk, there is now a blemish on the brilliant green countryside. The small town has vanished, swept from the face of the earth.
The manner in which it fell two weeks ago represents a significant shift in Vladimir Putin’s forces’ approach to the conflict. Long armoured columns, tank and infantry advances were abandoned in favour of large-scale artillery barrages – up to 1500 shells per day in Rubizhne – to wipe out resistance before any ground advance.
Overwhelming Russian firepower, notably artillery, underscores the urgent need for more modern weapons from the West, according to Ukrainian military commanders.
From Severodonetsk in the north to Mariupol on the southern coast, the Donbas stretches along Ukraine’s eastern flank. Mariupol is a hard-fought-over city that Russia just conquered in one of its major victories in the war.
Ukraine is losing 50-100 troops every day in the region, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky. I meet Vladimir, a private first class serving with a reconnaissance unit in the country’s National Guard, in Lysychansk. He claims that Russian forces are changing; initially, they were “bold and got pounded hard,” but now the opposition flattens what it can’t capture with infantry.
He informs me about his stay in Rubizhne for a month. “It wasn’t exactly Mariupol, but it was close. It was quite difficult. There were a lot of casualties, and there was a lot of street fighting. There was also artillery, which was simply destroying those houses as quickly as could. People were trying to hide in the basement so they wouldn’t be able to see or assess the situation. As a result, there were numerous losses throughout that time.”
The Ukrainian soldiers and women fighting in Donbas are not novices. Many have battled against Russian-backed separatists who have attempted to separate from Ukraine since 2014. However, in this new struggle over the region, they will be up against a national army with vast manpower and weapons. The number and variety of Russian weaponry utilised in Donbas is astounding, even for seasoned fighters.
Another guardsman refuses to reveal his name when I speak with him. “”It’s not my first battle,” he explains, “I mean, the first one was trench warfare, so [this time] it’s a little different.” I saw the complete image when I travelled to Rubizhne. It was difficult. 82 mm calibre weaponry, shots with high-explosive fragmentation grenades “he says as he takes a drag from his cigarette.
According to Vladimir, the Ukrainian soldier, the local community is “30% pro-Ukrainian, 30% pro-Russian, and 40% don’t care.” Naturally, many pro-Ukraine residents have left.
Military commentators have made much of Russia’s mounting casualty statistics and low morale among its soldiers since the beginning of the war. Although the number of casualties continues to rise, Russia does not appear to be running out of men in Donbas. The Kremlin also has plenty of artillery munitions. The explosives that are pounding Lysychansk and Severodonetsk appear to be numerous. The surrounding area is also scarred like a pox, with black cannon craters strewn over fields and highways for miles.
Vladimir responds, “There’s a lot of artillery.” “Bombardments are a nightmare; we fire one round, and they fire ten. They send in a full package of Grads on our sniper’s position when he’s shooting. So it’s effectively a sniper with one bullet, and they’re sending artillery rounds worth $1,000. They don’t seem to mind how much ammunition they use.”
Many of the guys I met in Lysychansk, like Vladimir, had previously served as Rubizhne’s defenders. They claim to have been through hell before and are prepared to go through it again.
Footage provided to the BBC by a National Guard unit depicts a landscape that may be a reenactment of World War Two devastation, with lines of shelled-out houses and deserted streets lined with bodies and dead animals. There’s also shellshock, which is a remembrance of the conflict. Men returned to town with trembling hands and limbs, as well as frequent headaches. “Cigarettes and coffee are the only things that keep them away,” said Pasha, a young lieutenant.
On the Ukrainian front line, larger weaponry have arrived on the outskirts of Lysychansk. Another National Guard unit is repairing an M777 howitzer that was recently obtained from the Australian government. The barrel is decorated with two kangaroos.
The rifle is useful, but practically everyone I speak with says they need more. They deliberately requested guns with a larger range. The United States has committed to supply significantly more powerful multiple launch rocket systems to them. If they arrive in time, they might be a game-changer in Donbas.
Some Western observers say Ukraine should succumb and give its territory to stop the catastrophe. But that is unimaginable for the exhausted Ukrainian defenders facing Russian attack. In reality, the losses they have sustained have only strengthened their resolve to stop and push back the enemy.
Vladimir Putin took a major risk – and lost – by attempting to take over all of Ukraine, which may explain why he is investing so much in achieving a tactical victory in Donbas. However, a triumph for the Kremlin here does not imply defeat for Ukraine.
I inquire of the unidentified guardsman, exhausted from months of warfare but still in the lead, what it will take to win.
“There is a sky, and it belongs to us. Drones are a huge assistance. Weapons, including numerous rocket launchers, have arrived. Please, America, provide a hand “He informs me. “The only stumbling block is the passage of time. It’s time to go, and that’s all there is to it. After that, it’ll all be Ukraine.”