KRAMATORSK, Donetsk Oblast – The perfect sunny spring morning in Donetsk Oblast was marred by the constant explosions going off every few minutes a dozen kilometers away.
The blasts were varied, coming from artillery and rocket barrages from both sides. A half-dozen soldiers held this outpost a short distance away from the front lines, north of the city of Sloviansk. Military cars hurried by, toward or away from the ongoing battle.
The woods seem packed with Ukrainian tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and other heavy weapons, concealed by the young green foliage.
Dark track marks could be seen on the paved roads, suddenly swerving into dirt furrows plunging into the woods. Driving through the forest, one can sometimes see the camouflaged outlines of the occasional Ukrainian combat vehicle, with servicemen resting, eating or being vigilant.
In a rare moment of silence, one could hear the hum of thousands of flies and mosquitoes hovering among the trees that cast dappled shadows onto the road. This was swiftly interrupted by violent detonations in the distance.
“Minus one village,” said one of the soldiers, turning his head in that direction.
The date was May 9, the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany during World War II, the last time Europe saw an offensive on such a large scale. Some expected the attacks to intensify for the occasion. But fighting’s been such a regular presence here since the war began that the holiday didn’t seem to come with a noteworthy escalation.
“The enemy is firing along the entire line of contact and trying to strike deep into the defenses of our troops,” Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, a Ministry of Defense spokesman, said at a May 9 briefing.
“Well, it’s a special day for them,” said one of the soldiers at the outpost. But another took a dismissive tone: “It’s been a special day for them for three months.”
The Russian offensive in Donbas has bogged down, making at-best modest progress. While the soldiers at the outpost acknowledged that they’ve tactically withdrawn from at least one village recently, they continue to hold the line.
Since the latest Battle of the Donbas began, Russian forces have tried to execute a massive push along the highway leading from the city of Izium in Kharkiv Oblast to Slovyansk in Donetsk Oblast. It was supposed to link up with another push from the south and cut the Ukrainian forces off from their supply lines and the rest of the country. Over several weeks of fighting, the Russians advanced by no more than 20-30 kilometers along their attack axes.
Significant Russian forces remain north of the Siverskyi Donets River, which they are having trouble crossing, according to Volodymyr, a retired Ukrainian Lieutenant Colonel from Izium, who now lives in the city of Kramatorsk.
The southern banks of this river are considerably steeper than the northern banks, creating a difficult boundary, Volodymyr pointed out. This is especially apparent in the village of Bohorodychne, where a demolished bridge across the river sags into the water. The Ukrainian-held bank towers over its opposite, bristling with trees.
According to British Intelligence’s May 13 tweets, the Ukrainian forces are halting the Russians’ attempts to cross the river and forced them to take heavy losses during a fording attempt west of Sieverodonetsk.
“Images indicate that during the crossing of the Siverskyi Donets river… Russia lost significant armored maneuver elements of at least one Battalion Tactical Group,” the British Intelligence statement read.
OSINT analyst Blue Sauron wrote that the Russians lost 73 combat vehicles.
The road into Bohorodychne is flanked by several plain, wooden orthodox crosses that look like they’ve been planted recently. “Eternal memory” one of them reads, the local version of the ‘RIP’ placed on gravestones. “Save and protect us,” says another.
A retiree named Volodymyr Semenets, sitting on the bench near his home in Bohorodychne, said the Ukrainian forces told him that Russians are unlikely to occupy this village, even though it practically straddles the line between the two opposing armies. Semenets hears daily exchanges of fire. Most munitions fly over the village but not all, as multiple broken windows and damaged houses can attest.
“This area is usually wreathed in smoke,” Semenets said. “How could (the Russians) see what they are shooting at? They just shoot and that’s it.”
Despite the danger, he and his wife refuse to abandon their property and animals for the uncertainty of western Ukraine. Humanitarian aid reaches them once a week, he said. Some other towns and villages along Russia’s attack path have it worse, with many cut off from regular supplies or medical professionals, said doctors in the city of Kramatorsk.
According to Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov’s May 11 briefing, the town of Lyman is now seeing some of the region’s fiercest battles.
As they awaited their eventual turn in the meat grinder, soldiers smoked and discussed recent news, such as the visit to the country by actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie. One young soldier, nicknamed the Merry Milkman for his love of condensed milk, said that rather than munching croissants in Lviv, Jolie should come to hang out at their checkpoint.
“Isn’t she a little old for you?” quipped one of his fellows. “Are you going to be chasing pensioners next?”
Another soldier asked if it’s true that Russian President Vladimir Putin is severely ill. Everyone’s seen the Russian leader clutching furniture, limping, coughing and being covered with a blanket in his recent video appearances. But Putin’s proximity to death’s door is not something this journalist could confidently confirm — only hope he’s getting there quickly.
“Yes, everyone hopes that,” the soldier said.