Putin’s war in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east is tearing families apart

It was in her elderly mother’s wood-framed summer kitchen that Lyudmila, 69, chatted with her brother Viktor, 72, who drove Vitya to the eastern city of Lysichansk last week. Despite almost continuous shelling from Russian forces just a few kilometers away, they have remained in their family home since the invasion of Ukraine in late February.

“My brother and I talked,” said Lyudmila, who asked CNN to use only her name for privacy reasons. “Suddenly the Grads began to fall one by one.” Windows flew out of their frames. “Everything crackled.”

She remembered the initial shock and confusion. “We are standing there – my brother is baptized, and I am screaming. I turned away from him to look at the house, and then there was another explosion, and I was trapped under the rubble.

Lyudmila was blind for a moment. Blood poured from her face and from lacerations on her arms and legs, but she was alive. She felt the touch of a neighbor who dragged her to safety in her basement. Fortunately, her 96-year-old mother was not harmed.

“I ask: “Like a brother, like Vitya?” And the neighbor hides his eyes and says: “Everything is fine.”

“I told him: “Vova, I don’t believe. If everything was normal, he would come to us.”

“He says: “It’s OK, sit down, sit down” and leaves. And his wife sits next to me and says: “Lyuda, he doesn’t know how to tell you. Vitya is dead.

“That’s all. And my brother would have turned 73 on May 6th. That’s all”.

Death and loss are far from the only traumas in this Russian-speaking region. For many, the war ended all remaining relations with Russia. According to a survey last year by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 43% of Ukrainians say they have relatives in Russia.

Even in the Russian-speaking east, that camaraderie has already waned since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatist movements. With this war, a history of pain comes to the fore: millions of deaths from starvation and forced Soviet collectivization, as well as decades of attempts to wipe Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian language from the face of the earth.

It’s hard to get along with someone who believes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda that the military is conducting a small, targeted operation to avoid civilian casualties. It may be even harder to communicate if they don’t believe that your neighbors, brothers and friends are being killed.

Lyudmila’s son, as well as her sister and her sister’s family, live in Russia.

“My granddaughter quarreled with the granddaughter of my own sister,” Lyudmila explained. “She said, ‘What are you thinking? You shoot yourself and you lie,” she added that “many people” in Russia do not believe what is really happening in her country.

“This is Putin’s policy. Zombies,” said Lyudmila.

Whether Russia can conquer all of Donbass—the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine—is an unanswered question after the poor performance of its armed forces in the first months of the war.

The destroyed railway bridge between Slavyansk and Liman, on which Russian troops are advancing.

However, the devastation that Russia will cause with this attempt is undeniable. Ukrainian officials say the attackers will bombard urban centers with their sizable artillery reserves until there is nothing left for the Ukrainians to defend. And leave Vitya and Lyudmila unsaid: dead, homeless or orphaned.

The head of the military administration of the Lugansk region, Sergei Gaidai, said that Russian troops are destroying all settlements on the front line in the region.

“Strategically, the only place where they (the Russians) can attack is the areas completely destroyed by them,” he told Ukrainian television on Monday. “So they destroyed the whole of Novotoshkovka, there was nowhere to keep the defense – and they occupied it.” According to Ukrainian data, the village of Novotoshkovka in Lugansk fell on April 25.

However, Gaidai does not believe that his opponent will be able to fully capture Lysichansk’s low-lying sister city, Severodonetsk, which lies across the Seversky Donets River.

“They definitely need this victory. But they will not attack Severodonetsk directly. They will try to surround him,” he told CNN, standing on a tree-lined street in the relatively calm Bakhmut.

Head of the military administration of the Luhansk region Sergei Gaidai in Bakhmut.

“In two months, they realized that they couldn’t break through the defense. So they are trying to get around or cut off from Popasnaya and Rubizhne. And then the Luhansk region will be surrounded. And then they won’t have to lose soldiers, they will simply shoot all the districts.”

This tactic is being used not only on the eastern fringes of what is left of the Ukrainian-controlled Luhansk region. This is also true in the south, along the line of contact that has existed since the formation of the breakaway state fragments in 2014-2015; and in the north, as Russia moves south from Izyum and west toward Liman.

If successful, he will trap the destructive part of the Ukrainian army. The main settlements of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, while almost not affected by enemy artillery, will be behind enemy lines.

Every day, excavators dig new defensive trenches in the fertile fields, and trucks lay concrete and earthen chicanes on the highway. Last week, a large railway bridge between Slavyansk and Liman was destroyed; whether it was a Russian strike or Ukrainian sabotage is not yet clear.

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Gaidai is convinced that the Ukrainian military will be able to contain the Russians for another two to three weeks. The small, maneuverable anti-aircraft and tank weapons provided by the Western powers are helping, he said. But the situation can be reversed only after the promised heavy artillery actually reaches the front line.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist yet,” he said. “And it could completely change the whole war.”

Now Lyudmila spends her days with her mother and a stranger in a small hospital room more than an hour west in Bakhmut. Her face is covered in pockmarks from shrapnel that hit her in the face.

Most of her neighbors have long since left for safer lands. But many others have stayed—because they don’t have the means to leave, because they want to protect their homes, or because they deny this war will be any different from the long-smoldering battles that have been raging in the region since 2014.

“Until greed and avarice in humanity are defeated, these wars will never end,” Lyudmila said. “No matter how much a person has, it is never enough.”

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