CHASIV YAR, Ukraine — Russia’s offensive in eastern Ukraine is intensifying in Donetsk Province, with a string of towns and villages coming under bombardment in the last week as Russian troops turn their firepower further west after seizing control of the last city under Ukrainian control in Luhansk Province.
The attacks, which have been occurring for days, seem random and unplanned. However, taken together they show that Russia is planning to seize another piece of Donetsk in the Donbas region.
Even though the Russia military command Announced an operational pause to allow its main troop force to regroup, its forces have increased bombardment of the five main towns and cities in the area — Bakhmut, Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, Druzhkivka and Kostiantynivka — as well as surrounding villages.
Emergency crews and soldiers worked nightly to rescue victims of a bombed apartment building after a Russian strike in Chasiv Yar. This village is about 12 miles from where the front line is. They had pulled five victims from the rubble, and fifteen bodies were recovered. But, emergency personnel said that 10 others could be hidden beneath the concrete.
Just after sunrise Saturday, four rockets crashed into Druzhkivka. They damaged a shopping center, smashed windows, and caused damage to other buildings. However, no injuries were sustained. Two cluster bomb attacks were launched into Kostiantynivka Saturday afternoon. Saturday night at 9 p.m., rockets smashed into two buildings in Chasiv Yar.
Ukrainian soldiers were attacked in Druzhkivka by a group of soldiers from Ukraine. Although they could have been the target, soldiers clearing out broken glass claimed they had not suffered any injuries. Inspecting bomb sites and collecting debris, police officers discovered that the rockets weren’t precision-guided munitions so it was hard to pinpoint a target. Two of the rockets were found in parks while one was found in a shopping center parking lot.
“It will not break Donbas,” said Yevgeny, 45, an I.T. He was a programmer, who was trying to retrieve his car from a garage rented for him.
Many of the people who live in these towns are from further east and have been displaced by war since 2014. They say they recognize signs of increasing attacks.
“It’s just the beginning,” said Lyudmyla, 61, her face pale from shock as she stared at the damage to the cultural center in Druzhkivka beside her sister Svetlana, 62.
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Other fronts were also seeing increased intensity in the fighting in Ukraine. It was the Ukrainian forces that used artillery to strike Russian troops in the region around Kherson in the south. Officials suggested that this would be a turning point in Ukraine’s war on terror. A retaking of territory effortThis has been held by Russia almost since the start of war.
Russia also sent out both military and political signals in north-eastern Ukraine on Saturday to indicate that its forces might mount a new push close to Kharkiv. The city is crucial and has been bitterly fought. It remains under the control of Ukraine. Rocket attacks were also launched there, hitting a school.
Russia established a civilian administration in Kharkiv Province, near the border. This flag, which the state news agency Tass stated emphasizes the historical connections between the region’s and Russia, was widely taken to indicate that Russia might annex parts of the province.
Oleksandr (31-year-old) stood at the front of Donetsk Province watching rescue workers work on the apartment complex. As machines removed concrete slabs, emergency workers set bricks aside. “My grandmother was here,” he said. “That’s her bed,” he added pointing to the pile of rubble. “I hope they will find her and I can give her a funeral.”
He stated that around 10 civilians, mostly pensioners, lived in the building at that time, but that military personnel had lodged there two days prior. His grandmother had refused to move in with him, he claimed.
According to another soldier, two soldiers were found dead in the building. He arrived with his colleagues from the frontline near Bakhmut to retrieve their belongings. According to military rules, he gave only Dyma’s first name and 28 years of age. Under the trees, he found a number of military vests, rucksacks, and a broken rifle covered in brick dust.
He claimed that a plane had crashed into the building using rockets. Dyma claimed that aerial bombardment was most damaging. The plane dropped a parachute explosive bomb on their positions close to Bakhmut, causing severe damage. “They do not announce it but we are taking heavy losses,” he said. “We need to close the skies,” he added, repeating a request that many Ukrainians make for planes and stronger air defense systems from Western allies to combat Russian aerial attacks.
The shock wave strong enough to shake cars was heard as he spoke. Dyma stated that the Russians had recommenced their bombardment and, judging by the distance, were hitting Kostiantynivka.
Three neighbors sat outside the front gate of the town’s main entrance, chatting in the shade. After having just had lunch, Oleksandra, one of the neighbors, returned home to feed her dog.
Their peaceful neighborhood was attacked at that time. Cluster bombs were dropped from the sky, exploding over the houses and gardens. Two cluster bomblets were exploded in Alla’s yard.
“Three grandmas were sitting on a bench there together, and one was killed,” Mikhail Stubin, 48, said, almost shouting in anger. His mother and mother-in-law, Alla’s friends, puttered about outside their homes, seemingly speechless.
“It was something terrifying,” said Anna Kaluzhnaya, 69. “First a whistle and then bangs so loud,” she said. The four cluster bombs that exploded around her house smashed the windows and roofs on all sides and shredded the plants in her yard. Although metal shrapnel was able to penetrate the walls, she had made a small space in a closet for it and was able to survive.
“No one expected it in this district,” she said. “I am pretty strong-blooded, but this was terrible.”
A second cluster-bomb attack on the town occurred a few hours later. This time, it struck a former steel factory that was being used by Ukrainian soldiers as a temporary base. One of the factory buildings suffered damage and a fire erupted on large areas of land below. The soldiers at the gate appeared very upset and asked journalists to leave.
The front line against Russians is located more than 20 miles east from Druzhkivka or Kostiantynivka. This area is home to many Ukrainian soldiers, who are seen driving trucks towards the frontline, stopping at local stores and taking a break in government and residential buildings.
Closer to the front there are no military vehicles on roads and the sounds are almost constant. The main towns are home to the Ukrainian artillery, which fires at a steady pace from their bases. The air is filled with the smell of burning and black smoke.
The Ukrainian police are guarding the last checkpoint near the town of Sloviansk. They’re hunkered down in woods only a few miles away from the front line. As a Ukrainian multiple rocket launcher fired a volley towards Russian positions, police officers moved toward their bunker Saturday midday.
The checkpoint is still in Ukrainian hands, but the villages beyond it have been under intense bombardment for several weeks. Russian artillery pounded the area Saturday morning and set fire to the trees and undergrowth that flanked the main highway. New York Times journalists drove by the fields as they were still burning Saturday afternoon.
President Vladimir V. Putin has said his aim is to bring Ukraine’s eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk under Russian control. Parts of the two provinces have been under the control of pro-Russian separatists since 2014, and Russia’s invasion forces have concentrated their efforts on the remaining area since they pulled back from around Kyiv at the end of March.
Russia announced an operational pause to allow its troops to regroup following the intense fighting for Luhansk’s two eastern cities. Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk. However, civilians and officials from Ukraine claimed that heavy fighting was still taking place in frontline villages as Russian forces push westward. The Ukrainian troops were determined to fight for every inch.
“The Russians will not stop,” said Konstantin, 58, the former manager of a local chocolate factory. He counted the number of places that were destroyed during the past five month. “You saw what happened to those places. I have a friend who said his village was completely razed to the ground,” he said. “They will take all of this, too.”
Kamila HrabchukContributed reporting