In eastern Ukraine, the war’s epicenter, a brutal fight rages

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski.
Khrestishche village is one of the last villages on the road to Izyum in Ukraine, as seen on March 30.

KHRESTYSHCHE, Ukraine — This town is slowly fading away. Most residents have fled after nearly a decade of bloody conflict since Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern provinces took up arms against the Ukrainian state. One morning this week, a half dozen elderly women, some of the town’s remaining 1,500 residents, huddled outside the village’s only church.

They were nervous. Here on the war’s most hotly contested front-line, Russian airstrikes have drawn closer and the din of war grows louder. The incessant thud of artillery striking a village just ten miles away, echoed through the valley below, interrupting their prayer.

“We don’t know who, or what is being fired at,” said 65-year-old Valentina, who said she was too afraid to give her last name.

The eastern region of Ukraine, known as the Donbas, has emerged as the most critical battlefield at this stage in the month-long war between Russian invaders and Ukrainian forces trying to protect their homeland. Russian President Vladimir Putin has set his sights on taking full control of this region as he withdraws his forces from the outskirts of Kyiv, according to current intelligence assessments. Analysts believe Putin will redeploy forces here for a new offensive and in an effort to save face after humiliating setbacks elsewhere, setting the stage for increasingly brutal battles for control here.

Washington Post journalists spent two days this week traveling the region, approaching to within six miles of advancing Russian military units. They interviewed Ukrainian military commanders and soldiers, local officials in towns under increasing pressure from Russian bombardments and terrified civilians whose already war-ravaged homes, schools, churches and businesses are suddenly on the white hot front lines of a new war that is drawing ever closer.

“It’s like a dream, I can’t believe this is happening,” said 32-year-old Victoria Debediova, who fled with her son to this village in mid-March, believing the rural hamlet would be safer than the nearby town of Slovyansk. “Nowhere is safe now, and the Russians are getting closer every day.”

As she spoke, another loud explosion boomed in the distance. “It’s a Russian airstrike,” said a hurried Ukrainian soldier passing through the small town. His weary fellow fighters led him away, admonishing him in whispered tones for sharing information with journalists.

The war has brought new arrivals to the area – people fleeing from towns even closer to the fighting. Residents interviewed watched as Ukrainian military vehicles barreled through their village, shuttling nervous young men toward the sound of war. Hundreds of the heavily armed soldiers now roam small villages and rural encampments dotting the region.

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski.
This is the road leading to Izyum in Slovyansk as seen on March 30.

Twenty miles away, the mayor of the strategically important town of Izyum announced on Friday that Russian forces had taken control of the town after three weeks of ferocious fighting. Russian forces had encircled the town on March 26, pummeling those trapped inside with airstrikes and salvos of heavy artillery. Local officials said 20,000 residents and Ukrainian fighters still in the town are facing a “humanitarian catastrophe” and uncertain future at the hands of Russian troops.

“The battle for Izyum is not over,” Mayor Valeriy Marchenko said in a written statement released Friday evening. “Soon our army will surely liberate the town from Russian occupiers and save the people of Izyum.”

Izyum is located at the highest point of elevation in the Kharkiv region, on a strategic piece of ground called “Kramiyanets” or “Flint Hill.” The elevated position towers over the coal-rich hills that define this land. From there, major roadways and adjoining villages are visible for miles. Taking it would give Russian forces the ability to control the surrounding areas and limit the movement of Ukrainian forces mounting any counteroffensive.

“Izyum is the last fighting position for our forces before the Donetsk region, the town is the gate to Donbas,” said Maksym Strelnik, a member of the city council.

Strelnik said Russian forces seem to be trying to surround Ukrainian forces Donetsk and Luhansk, two provinces that make up the Donbas region. Russia has supported both Ukraine-controlled areas and Russian-backed separatists there have been fighting Ukrainian forces for years. Now Russia seems to be prioritizing a military campaign to take full control there.

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski.
Volunteers help an elderly woman fleeing war in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, board an evacuation train on March 30.

Ukrainian military announced on Thursday that Russian forces are gathering strength ahead of a planned offensive toward the nearby regional capital of Kramatorsk, just under thirty miles from Izyum. If successful, that would threaten supply lines to embattled Ukrainian combat forces that have endured weeks of fighting to avoid being encircled by Russian forces.

As the fighting inched closer to Kramatorsk, local government workers and engineers from the Ukrainian military placed concrete barricades and “hedgehog” antitank barriers across the city along all possible avenues of approach by invading forces. Fortified artillery firing positions, camouflaged from Russian reconnaissance units, were seen placed in wooded areas surrounding major towns and villages.

Over the course of two days, reporters from The Washington Post observed more than 15 truckloads of heavily armed Ukrainian military personnel traveling toward the fighting in Donetsk. The military columns were made up of at least two dozen military vehicles, including air defense systems, armored troop carriers and tanks. They were supported by groups of soldiers who were seen patrolling country roads as backhoes cut through Ukraine’s black soil to create fortified trenches capable of withstanding Russian artillery strikes.

Ukraine’s defensive lines close to borders that define Russia-backed separatist territories remained largely intact despite ceaseless missile barrages. Ukrainian officials have also alleged that separatist fighters from the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic, as Russia refers to the areas, have also used white phosphorus — a highly flammable and deadly weapon. But Ukrainian military positions, hardened by eight years of war, have held, preventing a possible Russian advance from the eastern flank.

The governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, has embraced his role as a wartime leader helping to organize the effort to defend his homeland. He said in an interview Tuesday that after more than a month of war, the days blur together. He said he spends long hours reviewing the latest damage reports from Russian shelling and fielding calls from local officials organizing the evacuation of civilians.

What little sleep he gets is interrupted regularly by hours-long air raid sirens. The region’s large network of air-defense systems targets Russian bombers entering Ukrainian airspace. Just twenty miles from active combat, Kramatorsk has been spared the destruction suffered in places like Mariupol and Kharkiv — largely because those air defense systems have kept Russian pilots at bay and stopped many long-range missiles.

Kyrylendko, too, is concerned by the risk of encirclement by Russian forces. “We are looking at the map, all the time, every day, multiple times a day,” he said. As he spoke, with a Glock pistol on his hip and an assault rifle slung across his chest, he was interrupted by an air raid siren that forced him and visiting journalists to seek refuge in a bomb shelter.

“The risk definitely exists, and we are fortifying those locations where the enemy might target . . . so that the Russian occupiers won’t just be pushed back but destroyed completely,” he said.

Preparations extend beyond fortifying defensive positions. Deep inside Ukrainian held territory, the country’s security services have stepped up efforts to identify suspected collaborators and Russian intelligence assets operating within the region. Several have been captured. The country’s security services have found them with equipment to document coordinates of Ukrainian military positions. Officials found evidence that they have helped Russian forces adjust their artillery fire in real time. In addition, the Secret Service of Ukraine has arrested agents providing images and videos for pro-Russian social media propaganda.

Kyrylenko said focusing attention on those agents ensures that Ukrainians “won’t get hit with a knife in the back.”

Kyrylenko recently suspended civilian rule and imposed military control in eleven districts near Kramatorsk previously controlled by the pro-Russian opposition party. On Tuesday, he submitted a request to President Zolodomyr Zelensky to add an another.

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski.
Valentina, 65, stands next to a locked church gate in the village of Khrestysche, waiting for a service on March 30. She says she and another woman worked to keep military vehicles away from the church.

Since the start of the current war on Feb. 24, the Secret Service of Ukraine has identified more than 550 suspected collaborators in the Donetsk region accused of treason. Many are in territory controlled by the Russian military. A Russian ballistic missile strike on March 6 obliterated the regional offices of the SBU, Ukraine’s intelligence agency, further complicating the hunt for Russian collaborators. The powerful explosion also destroyed a nearby kindergarten.

In some cases, collaborators have included local government officials who have provided actionable intelligence to Russian forces, shelling neighbors and friends trapped inside their own towns, Ukrainian officials said. They have also used their detailed knowledge of the local terrain to help advancing Russian forces.

In Izyum, Strelnik said, a member of city council from the pro-Russian opposition party guided a Russian armored column down an unguarded stretch of road to avoid Ukrainian defensive positions. Ukrainian forces defending the city were encircled by the betrayal, he said. After a week of heavy fighting, Russians controlled the town.

Civilians continue to flee the area in record numbers. About 4,000 people from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are evacuating daily on buses, trains and private vehicles, according to local officials. Those families able to evacuate on their own wait in packed vehicles for hours at miles-long lines at fortified checkpoints to have their documents checked.

Inside the train Kramatorsk train station, the numbers of those fleeing approaching Russian forces has swelled in recent days. Many wait hours to secure a seat on the four trains leaving daily toward the relative safety of western Ukraine. Hundreds of people, mostly women and children, waited for one Tuesday train to Lviv that had been organized by the local government.

Many of the recent arrivals to the train station are from Slovyansk. At least a fifth of those living in the city, located just miles away from Russian large artillery, and the deadly “Smerch” multiple-launch rocket systems, have fled, according to Vadim Liakh, head of city council.

“The whole city is a front line now”, said Lilya Borisova, who decided to evacuate her hometown, after a heavy night of Russian bombardment. She gathered what belongings she could fit in two suitcases and took her teenage daughter to the Kramatorsk train station, hoping to secure a seat on a train evacuating civilians.

“We are trying to stay positive. Our parents, our husbands, are back protecting the city,” said Taesia Samoilenko, who left her husband behind in Slovyansk to protect their home. Her eyes briefly welled with tears as she spoke about her husband, looking away from her two children as she composed herself.

Back in the village of Krestysche, those who remained waited nervously as Russian forces pushed closer to their homes.

“If we survive, I’ll leave on foot with my suitcases,” said Victoria Debediova, standing outside a small store in the center of the village.

As she spoke, her voice cracked with emotion and she wiped away tears.

She repeated over and over: “I don’t want to live in Russia. I don’t want to live in Russia.”