The warm spring air is coming to eastern Ukraine. The roads are lined with red tulips, and people are reopening their summer kitchens, small buildings outside traditional homes used to isolate the heat and smells of cooking in the hotter months.
It was in her elderly mother’s wood-frame summer kitchen that Ludmilla, 69, was chatting to her brother Victor, 72, who went by Vitya, in the eastern city of Lysychansk last week. Despite near-constant bombardment from Russian troops just a few kilometers away, they had stayed in their family home since the invasion of Ukraine in late February.
“My brother and I were talking,” said Ludmilla, who asked CNN to use only her first name out of privacy concerns. “All at once, Grads started falling down one by one.” The windows were blown from their frames. “Everything was cracking.”
She recalled the initial shock and confusion. “We’re standing there – my brother’s making the sign of the cross, and I’m shouting. I turned away from him to look at the house, and then another explosion went off, and I was trapped under the rubble.”
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Ludmilla was momentarily blinded. Blood poured from her face and from lacerations on her hands and feet, but she was alive. She felt the touch of a neighbor, who pulled her to safety, to her basement. Her 96-year-old mother, mercifully, was unscathed.
“I ask, ‘How’s my brother, how’s Vitya?’ And the neighbor hides his eyes and says: ‘Everything is fine.’
“I said to him, ‘Vova, I don’t believe it. If it were okay, he would have come seen us.’
“He says, ‘Everything is OK down, sit down,’ and goes out. And his wife is sitting next to me and says ‘Luda, he doesn’t know how to tell you. Vitya is dead.’
“That’s it. And my brother would be 73-years-old on May 6. And that was it.”
Death and loss are far from the only traumas in this Russian-speaking region. For many, the war has upended any remaining fellowship with Russia. According to a survey last year by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 43% of Ukrainians report having relatives in Russia.
Even in the Russian-speaking east, that camaraderie had already been waning since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatist movements. With this war, a history of pain is brought to the fore: of millions dead from famine and forced Soviet collectivization and of attempts, over decades, to wipe out Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian language.
It’s hard to relate to someone if they believe Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda – that the military is conducting a small and targeted operation that avoids civilian casualties. It’s perhaps, even more difficult to relate if they don’t believe your neighbors, brothers, and friends are being killed.
Ludmilla’s son, as well as her sister and her sister’s family, all live in Russia.
“My granddaughter had a fight with my own sister’s granddaughter,” Ludmilla explained. “She said, ‘What are you making up? You are shooting at yourself, and you are lying,'” adding that a “lot of people” in Russia don’t believe what’s really happening in her country.
“This is Putin’s politics. Zombification,” Ludmilla said.
Whether Russia can conquer all of the Donbas – the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk – is an unanswered question after its military’s underwhelming performance in the war’s opening months.
The devastation Russia will wreak in the attempt is certain, however. Ukrainian officials say the attackers will bombard urban centers with their considerable artillery reserves until there is nothing left for Ukrainians to defend. And it will leave untold Vityas and Ludmillas: dead, homeless, or bereaved.
Serhiy Hayday, head of the Luhansk region military administration, said that Russian forces are destroying every settlement on the front lines of the region.
“Strategically speaking, the only place they (Russians) can advance in is the areas they have completely destroyed,” he told Ukrainian television on Monday. “So they completely destroyed the whole of Novotoshkivka, there was no place to hold the defense – and they occupied it.” The village of Novotoshkivka in Luhansk fell on April 25, according to Ukrainian accounts.
Yet Hayday does not believe that his enemy will be able to outright capture Lysychansk’s low-lying sister city, Severodonetsk, which lies across the Siverskyi Donets river.
“They need this victory for sure. But they will not attack Severodonetsk directly. They will try to encircle it,” he told CNN, standing on a tree-lined street in comparatively placid Bakhmut.
“In two months, they have realized that they cannot break through the defense. So they are trying to bypass or cut off from the direction of Popasna and Rubizhne. And then the Luhansk region will be encircled. And then they won’t need to lose the soldiers, they will just shoot all the areas.”
This tactic is playing out not just on the eastern edge of what remains of the Ukrainian-controlled Luhansk region. It is also true in the south, along the line of contact that has existed since the 2014-15 breakaway rump states formed; and in the north, as Russia pushes south from Izium and west towards Lyman.
If successful, it would trap a devastating portion of the Ukrainian military. The main population centers of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk – so far largely unharmed from enemy artillery – would find themselves behind enemy lines.
Every day, backhoes carve more defensive trenches into the fertile fields, and trucks stack concrete and earthen chicanes onto the highways. A major railroad bridge between Sloviansk and Lyman was destroyed last week; whether by Russian strike or Ukrainian sabotage is still unclear.
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Hayday is convinced that the Ukrainian military can hold the Russians off for another two or three weeks. The small, agile anti-air and tank weapons given by Western powers are helping, he said. But it is only once the promised heavy artillery actually reaches the frontline that the tide can be turned.
“That, unfortunately, is not here yet,” he said. “And it could completely change the whole war.”
Ludmilla now spends her days with her mother and a stranger in a small hospital room more than hour to the west, in Bakhmut. Her face is pockmarked with wounds from the debris that was blasted into her face.
Most of her neighbors left for safer lands long ago. But many others have remained – because they don’t have the means to leave, because they want to protect their homes, or because they’re in denial that this war will be any different than the long-simmering battles that have raged in this region since 2014.
“As long as greed and avarice in humanity are not overcome, these wars will never end,” Ludmilla said. “No matter how much a person has, it is always not enough.”