The thunder of the artillery is constant. A column of dense black smoke rises from the city of Bilohorivka, under constant attack for weeks. A Russian aerial bombardment on Saturday night razed a school in this town in the Lugansk region, in whose basements dozens of the few people who remained in an area in the main focus of attacks by Vladimir’s troops took refuge. Putin. Last night, the emergency teams managed to remove 27 survivors from the upper part of the school, which was practically destroyed, according to the authorities. This Sunday, the intense attacks against Bilohorivka have forced the rescue work to be suspended. About 60 people remain trapped in the guts of the school. “There is very little chance that they are still alive,” acknowledges the governor of Lugansk, Serhii Haidai, in a videoconference interview from a secret location.
The authorities have not received a signal for hours from the school area, which had become the last refuge in the town, after another bombing collapsed a social club. The area is badly damaged, says Haidai, showing images of a huge flaming crater over what used to be the college basement. Russian forces, advancing from several flanks, succeeded on Saturday in building a floating bridge across a nearby river to bring in infantry troops closer and are now one step away from Bilohorivka. There are blood and fire fights in the vicinity of the small town. The entire area is under siege.
The Lugansk region, once a prominent mining area and badly hit since 2014 by the war between the Ukrainian Army and pro-Russian separatists managed by the Kremlin, is the focus of some of the most furious attacks in the second phase of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin aspires to control the entire Donbas area in eastern Ukraine. And after weeks of stagnation and faltering progress in the face of a highly prepared, well-positioned Ukrainian Army equipped with Western-supplied weapons, he has launched a brutal strategy in which aerial bombardment is increasingly important.
Russian forces try to encircle the Ukrainian forces at various points in Donbas. And the Bilohorivka area is on the way to tightening that fence. Also, the roads that lead to Severodonetsk, the administrative center of the region, and the nearby town of Lisichansk. The road leading to the industrial towns is under constant attack, potholed by shells and strewn with artillery remnants. The sound of explosions is persistent. Also the Ukrainian response and anti-aircraft defenses. The entrance to the city is no longer safe.
The attacks are even more violent against the Lisichansk refinery, on the outskirts of the city where some 350,000 inhabitants lived before the invasion and which has been without water for weeks. The huge plant has been idle for several years, Governor Haidai stresses. However, blowing it up would not only help to block the key terrestrial artery that it has on one of its sides, but it would also cause toxic smoke, the result of the remains of fuel oil – a residue of petroleum – that remain at the bottom of its large deposits.
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In his plan to conquer Donbas, Putin has made more significant progress in recent days in the Lugansk region, now mostly under Russian control. Moscow has sent reinforcements to eastern Ukraine and military analysts and Ukrainian intelligence say that it has been helped in several areas by mercenaries from the Wagner company – the secret war arm of the Kremlin, which it has already used in Syria, Libya and in the conflict ukrainian 2013—.
On Saturday, advancing towards Severodonetsk – around which there is already fierce fighting – Kremlin forces and military contractors seized control of the city of Popasna, strategically built on a hill overlooking the area and now offering Russian forces a foothold to direct artillery fire. The next step, according to analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, is to move west from there.
There is still a street-to-street battle in the town of Popasna, but the situation is “critical,” admits Yara, a military paramedic who has evacuated the wounded from Popasna in recent days. Her vehicle still shows the signs. Scars of shrapnel and artillery fire now decorate the bodywork.
The town and its surroundings have been under fire from Russian forces for weeks. On Saturday night, the Ukrainian troops abandoned their fixed positions in the city. “Popasna is in ruins, there is nothing left to recover there. They are trying to eliminate Lugansk from the map,” says the governor, who fears “major provocations” by the Kremlin forces and the intensification of attacks this Monday, May 9, when Russia commemorates the victory of the Red Army against Nazi Germany and there are Large military parades are planned in various cities throughout Russia.
In Bakhmut, in one of the hospitals that receives wounded civilians and from the Lugansk front, the trickle of soldiers is substantial. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government continues to reinforce the area, already highly militarized since the Donbas war —which includes the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk— in 2014. Moscow has rethought its tactics, given the Ukrainian strategy of using mobile military posts and securing zones until few civilians or intact infrastructure remain, then tactically retreat to avoid capture. Putin is now betting on increasingly savage bombardments, sometimes in groups of three low-flying planes that are opening huge craters in civilian areas.
As in Bilohorivka. A scorched earth strategy that forces civilians to flee and those who remain to live in terror and in extremely precarious conditions. Another attack this Sunday has left much of the region without water and without electricity. Lugansk had 2.3 million inhabitants before the 2014 war. With the mass exodus caused by that conflict, some 850,000 remained in the area controlled by Ukraine, according to Haiday data. After the invasion that began on February 24, only about 45,000 remain, according to the authorities.
In Berestove, a small rural town in the Donetsk region but very close to the border with Lugansk, 60% of the population has left, explains Yuri Fedorenko. His shop is the last one open on the road to Severodonetsk and he ships at a good pace. It is he himself and his son, Mikola, who come to buy supplies from Bakhmut, or from the city of Kramatorsk. Delivery trucks no longer arrive in Berestove.
In the town they have become accustomed to living under the constant sound of explosions, explain Oxana and Liza, who work in the orchard, in the middle of a spring landscape, and apparently oblivious to the noise. Oxana is a teacher and continues to teach by videoconference. It’s the “activism” part of it, she says, keeping the system oiled. Liza was studying law and dreamed of being a police officer. “We already lived through the 2014 war here, but this is worse. And every day more horrible, ”says the young woman, who has parked all her plans. They believe that the Ukrainian Army will win against the Russian forces and refuse to leave their home, but they watch with terror the advance of the soldiers from Moscow and the news that arrives from Bilohorivka and Popasna: “We could not live without freedom”, says Oxana, “if the Russian occupiers arrive, we would leave everything and we would kill ourselves”.