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

It was in her elderly mother’s wood-framed summer kitchen that Ludmilla, 69, chatted with her brother Victor, 72, who went to Vitya in the eastern city of Lysychansk last week. Despite near-constant shelling by Russian troops just a few miles away, they had been staying at her family’s 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 for privacy reasons. “Suddenly, the graduates began to fall one by one.” Windows blew out of the frames of it. “Everything was cracking.”

He remembered the initial shock and confusion. “We’re standing there, my brother is making the sign of the cross and I’m screaming. I turned away from him to look at the house, and then there was another explosion and I was trapped under the rubble.”

Ludmilla was momentarily blinded. Blood was pouring from her face and from lacerations on her hands and feet, but she was alive. She felt the touch of a neighbor, who took her to a safe place, to her basement. Her 96-year-old mother, fortunately, was unharmed.

“I ask: ‘How is my brother, how is Vitya?’ And the neighbor covers his eyes and says: ‘Everything is fine’.

“I told him: ‘Vova, I don’t believe it. If she was okay, she would have come to see us.’

“He says, ‘Everything is fine, sit down,’ and he walks out. And his wife is sitting next to me and she’s like, ‘Luda, she doesn’t know how to tell you. Vitya is dead.’

“That’s it. And my brother would be 73 on May 6. And that was it.”

A bloody stretcher lies in the corridor of a hospital in Bakhmut.

Death and loss are far from the only traumas in this Russian-speaking region. For many, the war has turned any remaining partnership with Russia upside down. According to a survey conducted 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 faded since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatist movements. With this war, a history of pain is revealed: of millions killed by 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 who believes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda that the military is conducting a small, targeted operation to prevent civilian casualties. It may be even harder to relate if you don’t believe your neighbors, siblings, 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’re shooting yourself and you’re lying,'” adding that “a lot of people” in Russia don’t believe what’s really happening in her country.

“This is Putin’s policy. Zombification,” Ludmilla said.

Whether Russia can conquer all of Donbas, the eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, is an unanswered question after the disappointing performance of its army in the first months of the war.

A destroyed railway bridge between Sloviansk and Lyman, where Russian forces are advancing.

However, the devastation that Russia will cause in the attempt is certain. Ukrainian authorities say the attackers will bombard urban centers with their considerable artillery reserves until the Ukrainians have nothing to defend. And it will leave Vityas and Ludmillas uncounted: dead, homeless or heartbroken.

Serhiy Hayday, head of the military administration of the Lugansk region, said that Russian forces are destroying all settlements on the front lines of the region.

“Strategically speaking, the only place they (the Russians) can advance is in the areas they have completely destroyed,” he told Ukrainian television on Monday. “So they completely destroyed Novotoshkivka, there was no place to hold the defense, and they occupied it.” The town of Novotoshkivka in Luhansk fell on April 25, according to Ukrainian accounts.

However, Hayday does not believe that his enemy will be able to completely capture Lysychansk’s sister city, Severodonetsk, which is located on the other side of the Siverskyi Donets River.

“For sure they need this win. But they will not attack Severodonetsk directly. They will try to surround it,” he told CNN, standing on a tree-lined street in comparatively placid Bakhmut.

Serhiy Hayday, head of the military administration of the Luhansk region, in Bakhmut.

“In two months, they realized that they cannot break through the defense. Therefore, they are trying to bypass or cut off the direction of Popasna and Rubizhne. And then they will surround the Luhansk region. And then they will not have to.” If you lose the soldiers, they’ll just shoot all the areas.”

This tactic is developing not only in the far east 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 breakaway rump states formed in 2014-15; and in the north, when Russia advances south from Izium and west towards Lyman.

If successful, it would ensnare a devastating part of the Ukrainian military. The main population centers of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, hitherto largely unscathed by enemy artillery, would lie behind enemy lines.

Every day, backhoes dig more defensive trenches in the fertile fields, and trucks pile concrete and dirt chicanes into highways. A major railway bridge between Sloviansk and Lyman was destroyed last week; It is not yet clear whether it was a Russian attack or Ukrainian sabotage.

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Hayday is convinced that the Ukrainian army can hold off the Russians for another two to three weeks. Small, nimble anti-aircraft and tank weapons provided by Western powers are helping, he said. But only once the promised heavy artillery actually reaches the front line can the situation be turned around.

“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 an hour to the west, in Bakhmut. Her face is full of wounds from the debris that was thrown at her face.

Most of their neighbors left for safer lands long ago. 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 that this war is any different from the simmering battles that have long raged. this region since 2014.

“As long as the greed and greed of humanity are not overcome, these wars will never end,” Ludmilla said. “No matter how much a person has, it’s always not enough.”

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