“The Russians are determined”: Ukrainian soldiers defending the city of Donbass try to keep morale under fire

In most of Ukraine, Russia’s war effort is slowing, its forces losing ground after retreating from the north and the capital, kyiv.

But in Lysychansk, 700 kilometers east of the capital, it’s a world apart. It is here that Russia is pushing hardest in its new offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, concentrating its forces and advancing slowly but surely.

Almost three months after the start of the war, only a small part of Luhansk Oblast, one of the two main administrative regions that make up Donbass, remains under Ukrainian control. The fighting here is constant, with endless artillery and mortar fire.

Colossal plumes of thick black smoke rose from the Lysychansk oil refinery after being repeatedly hit by Russian howitzers over the past week.

Smoke rises after the bombing of Lysychansk on May 3. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

The scenes in the city itself are apocalyptic. The streets are riddled with bombardment and almost deserted – of the 200,000 inhabitants of Lysychansk and neighboring Severodonetsk before the war, only about a fifth remain.

Civilians are rarely on the streets. During CBC’s visit to Lysychansk last Thursday, a man passed by on a bicycle, lazily smoking a cigarette, unresponsive to the constant shellfire that has become a feature of life here.

People walk past part of a rocket stuck in the ground in Lysychansk last Friday. Civilians are rarely seen on the streets of the city as it continues to come under attack. (Leo Correa/Associated Press)

The mood of the Ukrainian fighters defending the city varies.

A commander, who identified himself by his call sign, Spartak, was in good spirits. He leads a battalion of 350 men defending the city and Severodonetsk, which lies across the Seversky Donets River from Lysychansk.

“The situation is difficult,” said Spartak. “Our task is to defend Luhansk, or what’s left of it, but the Russians are determined.”

As he spoke, another volley of artillery struck several miles away.

“It was probably theirs,” said another soldier, Roman. “They have a lot more [artillery] ammunition than us. They fire about three shells for every one we fire.”

Spartak, Roman, and other Ukrainian soldiers were not allowed to give their full names as active duty personnel.

“Spartak” is a battalion commander who leads Ukrainian troops in the defense of Lysychansk and the nearby town of Severodonetsk. (Neil Hauer/CBC)

Russia sends more troops

Spartak claims that new troops reinforced the Russian advance.

“They gathered reinforcements and moved units here from other fronts,” he said. “In the past few days, four new brigades have arrived.” That would mean thousands more Russian soldiers in the fight.

A Russian soldier stands guard at the Luhansk power station in the city of Shchastya on April 13. Only a small part of the Lugansk administrative region remains unoccupied by the Russians. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

Having failed in its original war aims, including the capture of kyiv and the installation of a puppet government, Moscow recalibrated its military towards a narrower goal: the capture of Donbass and the destruction of Ukrainian forces there.

On March 25, about a month after the invasion began, Russian officials announcement that the first phase of their military operation was “over” and that Russia would now focus on the Donbass region.

Over the next week, Russian forces were withdrawn from all of northern Ukraine, abandoning that theater in order to fully commit to seizing the rest of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

This has allowed Russia to make consistent gains. Russian forces have pushed forward in several parts of Donbass, with an offensive largely blocked from the junction town of Izyum flanked by larger advances near Lysychansk and further south.

A sign marks the entrance to Luhansk Oblast, only a small part of which remains under Ukrainian control. Russian and separatist forces attempt to take over the entire oblast. (Neil Hauer/CBC)

Russian forces are also set to fully take the strategic port city of Mariupol, south of Donetsk.

Spartak is tight-lipped about losses in its own ranks. He only says that Ukrainian losses are lower than those on the Russian side, which he says number “30 to 40 men a day, plus two to three tanks.”

Civilian casualties in Lysychansk are difficult to count, but Spartak said there were “thousands dead, at least”.

CBC could not independently verify these figures.

Local residents look at a wrecked car next to a multi-storey building in Lysychansk on April 13. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

“There are also Chechens here”

He says that one unit on the Russian side suffers much less than the others.

“There are also Chechens here,” Spartak said, referring to fighters sent by Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman from Russia’s Chechnya province and a loyal partner of President Vladimir Putin.

“They never fight. They just stand second or third line, make TikTok videos and beat prisoners.”

Kadyrov’s men are more for intimidation purposes, he said.

“They block units,” Spartak explained.

Such units are akin to the infamous “barrier troops” used by the Soviet Red Army during World War II to prevent retreat and execute deserters.

“Their real goal is to ‘encourage’ Russian soldiers who don’t want to fight to keep going,” he said.

The shell of a destroyed school in which Ukrainian officials say 60 people sheltering in a basement died following a Russian military strike on the village of Bilogorivka in the Lugansk region is pictured on May 13 . (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

While Russian morale is obviously not particularly high, their numbers and firepower allow them to advance.

On the Ukrainian side, the soldiers remain attached to the defense, but the incessant assaults are beginning to wear them down.

“We were forced to retreat”

Roman was just coming off a tough night of fighting when CBC spoke to him last Thursday.

“Today is a very calm day,” he said, despite the persistent shelling. “The Russians are repositioning their forces for a new assault on Severodonetsk now that they have taken Rubizhne.”

Roman was present for the final battles at Rubizhne, a town northwest of Lysychansk on the east side of the river.

Roman, a major in the Ukrainian army fighting in the Luhansk region, told CBC last week that his unit had to withdraw from the town of Rubizhne. (Neil Hauer/CBC)

“We were forced to retreat last night,” he said. “We didn’t have the forces to hold the city, so we blew up the bridge and fell back to Severodonetsk.”

He says Russian forces are trying to cut off Ukrainian troops in Lugansk and form a new pocket there.

“The Russians are now trying to advance from Popasna,” Roman said, referring to a town 20 kilometers south of Lysychansk which was taken by Russian troops on May 8.

He said they were trying to cross the river to the southwest and connect with the forces coming from the southeast.

“If the situation doesn’t improve, we will be surrounded,” Roman said.

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The advantages of Western weaponry

Spartak was more confident and stressed the need for additional troops.

“The enemy is getting reinforcements and we don’t have enough ammunition for our artillery either,” he said.

Some newly transferred Western weapons have arrived in the region, bolstering Ukrainian capabilities. American-made M777 howitzers are Already used in Donetsk while the 200 T-72 tanks donated by Poland were also Point en route to the front line.

Poland has supplied Ukraine with 200 T-72 tanks, an example of which is pictured here on a road near Lyman in eastern Ukraine on April 24. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

More and more Ukrainian vehicles continue to flow into the city. During CBC’s visit, four BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles rumbled past, loaded with fighters exchanging shouts of “Glory to Ukraine!” and “Glory to the heroes!” A pair of T-64 tanks, the mainstay of Ukrainian armored forces, also drove down the Lysychansk road.

It is hoped that Ukrainian advances near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, 240 kilometers northwest of Lysychansk, will reduce the pressure here. Last week, a Ukrainian counteroffensive captured large swaths of land around Kharkiv and pushed Russian troops almost to their own border.

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Ukraine’s military said Russian forces are now withdrawing from the country’s second-largest city and concentrating on the eastern region of Donetsk.

“We can definitely notice a difference,” said Spartak. “It distracted [the Russians] somewhat, and they had to keep their flanks.”

tears of relief

After the commanders left, another scene unfolded, which illustrates how isolated Lysychansk and its remaining inhabitants have become.

A car stopped, and a fat woman in a ruffled blue shirt got out.

“What are the news?” said Tatiana Malorezka, a resident of Lysychansk. “We have no electricity, no mobile signal, no idea what’s going on.”

Natalia Georgiyevna, 70, sits on her bed in a makeshift shelter in a basement of a kindergarten in Lysychansk on May 14. She and six other people have been living there for more than two months. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

She asked the CBC team if it was true that Russian troops had taken control of Severodonetsk, as that was what was claimed on Russian radio broadcasts – the only source of information available to the local residents. Although only a kilometer away, the status of the nearby town was a mystery to Malorezka, who crumbled upon learning that Severodonetsk was still in Ukrainian hands.

“Thank God,” she said, crying with relief. “Let there be no water here, let there be no light – until the Russians are here. I will not live under occupation.”