Under constant siege by Russian troops, the city of Lisichansk resists as best it can. Antonina speaks in verse. “It is a war, but there is no need to be afraid,” she says. She talks and talks and tries to convince herself. And to stay sane. It is the first time in several days that she sets foot on the street and sees the sun.
The Russian army is getting closer to Lisichansk. On the decisive and increasingly bloody front in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin is trying to tighten the siege that it has already managed to shore up to gain control of the eastern Lugansk region. The industrial town – one of the few in this province, next to Severodonetsk, still in the hands of the Ukrainian forces – is at risk of being conquered.
And between the burning and sour smell of the explosions, hopelessness is also breathed. The streets lined with hive Soviet-style buildings and green parks are deserted. From time to time, a missile protrudes from the sidewalk. Or a couple of burned buildings. Or some sinkhole caused by a bomb. Lisichansk has abandoned itself.
After the failure of the offensive on kyiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin has focused on the Donbas area, where for the last eight years he has been supporting, feeding and managing the pro-Russian separatists through whom he came to control – with the war that started in 2014 – a third of the mining regions of Lugansk and Donetsk.
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After months of building a bellicose discourse on the false claims that the inhabitants of these provinces suffer a “genocide”, Putin signed a decree in February that assumed their independence. Two days later, he launched the invasion and a fierce offensive by land, sea, and air across Ukraine. He has called it a “special military operation” in Donbas and claims that he seeks to “liberate” and “de-Nazify” the country.
The area is highly militarized after a war of almost a decade, with a line of contact of more than 400 kilometers that had remained immovable until recently. The Ukrainian military—professional and well-equipped, knowing the terrain and receiving sophisticated weapons and training from its Western allies in ever-increasing flux in this war—has held out for weeks. But the Kremlin has sent reinforcements to Donbas and is pushing with a new strategy of small advance offensives, reconnaissance drones and airstrikes. Increasingly sustained and indiscriminate bombing that does not distinguish between military targets, infrastructure or residential areas.
In recent days, while losing ground further north in the Kharkov area, Russia has managed to make slow but significant gains in Donbas. Especially in the Lugansk region, where he wants to take over Severodonetsk, —in which fighting is already taking place on the outskirts, according to the governor, Sehii Haidai—, and with Lisichansk.
Before the invasion, this city had about 100,000 inhabitants. Now the few who have remained in Lisichansk, under the constant punishment of the Moscow forces, have learned to read the signs of this new war. To count the silences. To take advantage of the moments of the counteroffensive to get out. Like the skinny Antonina, who walks hastily to a very poor little market to get hold of a few provisions. “Know what? I now have 34 cats and several dogs. All collected from people who left. He left and did not come back, ”verses the woman.
Natalia, Gena and Aleksandr also count the silences and have thrown themselves into the street. They are desperately trying to get out of the city, hoping that some humanitarian convoy or evacuation vehicle will pass by. However, the bus station is closed and deserted. Even the adjoining fire station seems abandoned. Lisichansk has been without a phone line for days. It also has no water. “We don’t know anything, we can’t call, we don’t know how or when we can get out,” laments Gena.
‘The highway of life’
The explosions sound louder and closer. But the three former colleagues — now retired — from a factory on the outskirts barely flinch anymore. At least on the outside. Even if anger, fear or sorrow burns inside them. Between the three of them they count four small bags and a beige plastic picnic basket, which had a better life in past springs. They have lasted a little over an hour outdoors. “We have lost everything. We didn’t leave when we could. And now”, laments Aleksandr. They return home. Tomorrow they will try again. They don’t care which bus to get on. They just want to get out of Lisichansk.
It will not be easy. The authorities have not launched any convoy for a few days. The only road leading to Lisichansk and Severodonetk (the next town) is under constant artillery attack. For most of the day it is impassable as a focus of attack by Russian forces and under threat of air strikes. There are hardly any Ukrainian military checkpoints left. One of the last ones is now populated by a string of burnt-out vehicles and an empty, gunned-down booth.
The strategic road, which has served as an escape for thousands of people who have been begged by authorities for weeks to leave, is now one of the main centers of the battle. Russia seeks to take it to advance and further tighten the siege, or blow it up, to isolate the industrial cities of Severodonetsk and Lisichansk. Governor Haidai — who left the area days ago and is now holed up in a bunker at an undisclosed location after being blacklisted by Russia for refusing to cooperate — has renamed it “the highway of life.” .
There is already heavy fighting on both sides of the artery, stitched up by holes and shell craters and dotted with burned-out cars. Putin’s forces, with the help of mercenaries from the obscure Wagner company, have managed to conquer the strategic town of Popasna, built on a hill and with which they have achieved a key point for their artillery attacks. In recent days, they have built three pontoon bridges over the mighty Siverski Donets River across which they were able to transport infantry troops and several armored vehicles before Ukrainian forces destroyed two of them. Now, some of the main fighting is centered in the town of Bilohorivka, where Russia bombed a school on Saturday night where dozens of people were sheltering, according to authorities, who fear 60 dead under the rubble.
war of attrition
The war in Ukraine has reached a “dangerous” and “unpredictable” point, according to US intelligence services. US director of national intelligence Avril Haines said Tuesday that the conflict is turning into a war of attrition with no end in sight, and that the odds are increasing that Putin will resort to “more drastic means.”
In recent days, the Kremlin has launched missile attacks — including hypersonic missiles — on the Black Sea port of Odessa. A display of military muscle, but also an attempt, according to several military analysts, to stop the sending of reinforcements from other fronts to Donbas.
In deserted Lisichansk, while Anna and Roman drag two water jugs attached to their bicycle, Alla has spread out a few spring onions, a handful of parsley and several eggs in a plastic container on a bench. She is 53 years old, but looks about 70. She sells what little she has. “There isn’t even enough to eat, so between one thing and another we save each other’s lives. The few that we are. We will survive,” she whispers to herself as she hugs herself. “It’s all horrible. We are in the middle of everything.”
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