Maybe it was a sneaky neighbor. Or a Russian spy. The truth is that a huge explosion immediately set fire to Yuri’s farm pens, killing 20 cows, blowing away the corrugated iron roof and carving a huge hole in the farm floor, in the middle of nowhere in the region of Donetsk, between farm fields and dirt roads on the increasingly hot Izium front, where fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces has intensified in recent days. The Russian bombardment targeted Ukrainian positions, but soldiers in kyiv often rely on mobile outposts, and the Russians missed. “Someone reported that there are soldiers in the area, but they failed. And they will fail again,” remarks a Ukrainian Army officer.
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The roar of attacks – often from the air – on the eastern front of Ukraine it is sustained and the columns of smoke stain the blue sky of rural spring. Kremlin troops advance from the occupied city of Izium to pocket the Ukrainian troops and conquer the entire Donbas area. Signs that the second phase of the invasion of Ukraine launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 24 is already underway. A war under the false rhetoric of “denazifying” a country led by a Jewish president and “liberating and protecting” Russian-speakers who are now bombing his troops.
After the failure of the Kremlin to advance towards kyiv and to maintain the occupied zones in the northeast of Ukraine, the scene of the brutality of the Russian troops, Moscow has launched a new campaign with a more limited objective, focused on capturing Donbas and the south.
The strategy now is different, military analysts point out. The soldiers sent by Putin have managed to bite off a crescent-shaped territory in the east and south of Ukraine. They now seek to advance from their positions in the northeast and south to encircle the Ukrainian troops, well positioned and entrenched in an area already the scene of war and heavily militarized eight years ago, when the Donbas conflict began after the separatists pro-Russians fed and politically and militarily backed by Moscow declared the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
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Since then, the Kremlin – which with a decree signed by Putin assumed the independence of the two territories one day before launching the invasion – controls 30% of the Donbas area. And from those positions it is also trying to push a 500-kilometer front line that had remained almost fixed since 2014, strongly protected by the Ukrainian Army, which had stationed at least a third of its soldiers in Donbas; also to the most professional and hardened battalions.
The Russian advance is not being fast, but it is methodical, point out analysts from the Institute for the Study of War. The offensive is being based on incursions of tactical battalions in different points and then send more soldiers and keep the Ukrainian defenders occupied in those positions. Russia has also used more intense attacks with mortars, shells, rocket launchers, as well as bombardments from helicopters and low-flying planes, an official says. Kremlin forces have already seized a dozen small rural towns in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
In Prelesne, a bucolic village on the Izium front, a few kilometers from the small town already in Russian hands, Valentina and Liudmila plant their garden, apparently oblivious to the constant explosions and columns of black smoke on the horizon. Like Valentina’s husband, Vitali, who barely flinches and smokes a cigarette as he watches the two women work. “We are afraid, but also hungry. You have to eat something,” says Liudmila, who has taken in her son and her daughter-in-law, Valentina, since the beginning of the war, when she closed the Kramatorsk factory where the couple worked. Now, the bombs are getting closer, but everything has become part of the landscape, a reality that, as happened with the Donbas war that began in 2014, runs the risk of lengthening, entrenching and absorbing the life of the entire area.
Scorched Earth in Izium
As in other occupied towns, Russian forces have applied a scorched earth policy in Izium (46,000 inhabitants), says its mayor, Valeri Marchenko, who left the city with a group of evacuees before the advance of Moscow soldiers. He earlier he had received a call from a Russian officer to hand over the city. “Of course I refused,” says Marchenko by phone from an indeterminate point, who confesses that he did not want to leave Izium. The government order, however, was clear, he comments; the Russian occupiers have already kidnapped more than twenty public councillors, and Marchenko was on the list. Despite the fact that the city has terrible communications, its neighbors have reported looting, beatings and forced deportations to Russia.
Izium was the scene of fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces for weeks, but Putin’s troops, supported by air force, managed to take the small town, where they quickly renamed John Lennon Square as “Soviet Square”. From Izium they are now advancing towards the city of Sloviansk and towards Kramatorsk, the de facto capital of Donetsk province and the military head of Donbas, an area of some 52,000 square kilometers, the size of Costa Rica.
The Kremlin has sent most of the 190,000 troops mobilized to invade Ukraine east. And after the lack of coordination at the beginning of the invasion, he has placed a single general —Alexander Dvornikov— at the command of what he calls a “special military operation”, instead of the several who led the failed offensives on the various flanks. Furthermore, the area it now controls borders on its territory, so Russia could benefit from a long battle without exposing its supply lines and with better communications and logistics.
The kyiv troops are also preparing for the assault. They have reinforced their positions along the Izium front and are now laying out new fortifications. In addition, reinforcements from all over the country are arriving in the area. Also new weapons, fuel and supplies. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has demanded from the allied countries new shipments of heavy weapons and anti-aircraft defense systems to face this new phase of the war, which for the Kremlin may have May 9 as a key date, when Russia It celebrates with great military parades the victory of the Red Army over Nazi Germany. By then, Putin must have something to sell at home as an achievement, such as the seizure of the port city of Mariupol in the southern Donetsk region.
Meanwhile, military analysts anticipate that the battle could be very bloody, exhausting and prolonged. A contest that will determine the course of the entire war and will also mark post-war Ukraine.
In Sloviansk, where those who have remained queue at the few open shops and at the mouth of ATMs, Viktor, a retired miner, sorts the shopping bags. “Some of those who have stayed is because they don’t care who governs, but many others are here because we believe in victory, even if it’s late,” he points out. The city, where some scars of old attacks are mixed with other fresh ones, can be a fundamental stage in this war and the next battlefield.
Around the town, which was a key point in the 2014 war and was briefly under pro-Russian hands, military checkpoints are looking for informers and infiltrators; as in all of Ukraine. And although Viktor points out that almost everyone there knows more or less which foot each person is limping on, the neighbors also look at each other out of the corner of their eyes: “War is not unknown here. We have lived it for eight years and every day is worse. Hope declines month after month, day after day, but I maintain it.