The Ukrainian city of Izyum was liberated in September, halting the near siege of Slovyansk, a city in the Donetsk region that Russia tried to take for most of 2022. Nothing prepares you for the drive between the two cities, where major battles took place. For dozens of miles, an image of destruction. Almost no buildings are standing. Forests have been shelled, the fallen trees pointing towards the north, and in the forests there are the graves of the dead, which the Russian troops marked only with a number. You realise this is scorched earth. Everything was targeted: the people, the houses, the trees and even the dust. As you enter the Donetsk region, near the village of Dolyna, the forests give way to the steppe. The sunset is blood red, like an Arkhip Kuindzhi painting.
At the border between the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, the checkpoints suddenly multiply. We are entering the war zone. A crushed tank is being transported towards Kharkiv. And a new or refurbished tank travels south, towards the front. I also spot a recreational boat being towed somewhere, but none of the ideas of what it might be doing here seems entirely convincing. The police are holding it at a checkpoint.
We stop at a military base outside Slovyansk. In the kitchen one of the medics shows us pictures on his phone of many recently killed Ukrainian soldiers. There are sliced tomatoes on the table. The medic boils some coffee and pours a few biscuits out of a large bag to go with it.
The action is some 30 miles to the east in Bakhmut, where the Russian army keeps sending successive waves of soldiers to their deaths. Perhaps theirs is a grim hope that the lack of concern for human life will impress the Ukrainian side with the thought that only killing every single Russian can stop the invasion. These are the reports you hear: as the Russians come, they step on the corpses of the previous wave, and then another wave arrives. It’s a tactic Ukrainian soldiers call “meat waves”. The Wagner Group sends soldiers recruited from Russian prisons to a certain death as a way to pinpoint the location of Ukrainian troops.
In nearby Kramatorsk, the liberation of Izyum made less of a difference than in Slovyansk. Children cannot go to school and rely on online education. Access to electricity depends on generators, but in an industrial centre as large as the city of Kramatorsk, they are less scarce than elsewhere in the Donetsk region. A few times a week, a rocket lands in the city.
When I ask people how much time I should expect between the siren alarm and the rocket impact, the reply comes with a shy chuckle: “Two minutes. First the impact, then the siren.” We are closer to Bakhmut now, but in relative safety, a safety conditional on Bakhmut holding. So you look for news from the east as much as supplies from the north.
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I am standing on the bank of the Donets river, looking up to the Holy Mountains. Before me lies the collapsed bridge that connected the hill to the village of Sviatohirsk, a pile of bombed concrete and iron. The front line in Torske is very close. Only military vehicles cross the narrow paths from Slovyansk, along the frozen Donets. The thuds from shelling never stop and you must watch every step to avoid walking on “petal” or “leaf” mines left behind by the Russian troops as they retreated. Made of plastic and looking like an innocent toy, the small, winged devices are easy to miss but can cause grievous injuries. We drive with no concern for aircraft above, a telling sign of the failure of Russian aviation.
From across the river, the Sviatohirsk Cave Monastery looks as magnificent as ever, framed by large chalk cliffs resembling the wings of a swan. The cathedral survived the worst of the long battles pitting the Ukrainian troops up on the hills against the Russians occupying the village below. From the summit of this hill, many centuries of Ukrainian history look down on you. There is the monastery, which Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, visited in 2009, calling it a spiritual fortress of “Holy Russia”. Still higher up is the monument to the Bolshevik leader Fyodor Sergeyev, known as Artem, as white as the monastery. Artem led a kind of 20th-century version of the contemporary Russian statelets in the Donbas, but his statue survives. Below it is the destroyed bridge, which has turned out to be the final symbol of the Russian presence in these lands.
The village is almost completely destroyed. Few people stayed behind and they walk the streets like ghosts, heading to the volunteer van bringing bread from Slovyansk. It is the only food available here. One old lady tells me she never left, even during the worst of the fierce battles for Sviatohirsk last year.
Many young people from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions left over the decades after independence. Why would you stay in a place with no future, where only the symbols of a dead past remained? As a young volunteer in Kramatorsk told me, many of the young artists and writers you meet in Kyiv will never tell you they come from places like Sviatohirsk.
It might have once seemed easy to leave and head west, but the story of Ukraine over the past ten years is an existential struggle to escape a horrible past; like a nightmare or a horror movie, history pulls you back just at the moment when you were starting to feel free.
The novels by the local acclaimed writer Serhiy Zhadan capture this double movement – forward and back – with lyrical exactitude. What uncanny ability the Donbas has to represent in the present every past stage of historical development: the steppe, coal mining, Soviet heavy industry, post-Soviet emptiness. But now Ukraine as a whole has returned to the Donbas for a final reckoning with the past.
Artillery ranges and their circles have a remorseless logic. If Bakhmut falls, Kramatorsk might need to be evacuated, a repetition of the tragic evacuation in April last year, when the train station was bombed by a Russian missile and 60 people, including seven children, were killed. Many in Ukraine think that Bakhmut won’t be able to hold for much longer, but in turn there are other sections of the front where Ukrainian forces might be able to pierce the Russian defences, especially in Kreminna, just east of Sviatohirsk and its monastery. Besides Bakhmut, Russian forces are making a push near Vuhledar to the south-west.
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The stakes could be even higher: if Russia is planning a new offensive in February or March (Ukraine’s national security adviser, Oleksiy Danilov, told me in an interview on 19 January that the one-year anniversary of the invasion is a focus point), it would likely take place in the east. Oleksandr V Danylyuk, the coordinator of the Ukraine-Nato platform for the early detection and countering of hybrid threats, tells me it could be aimed at encircling a large number of Ukrainian troops, a superstitious attempt to repeat Stalingrad.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine’s defence minister from 2019 to 2020, thinks the offensive would likely be concentrated in the Donetsk region. “And then if they are successful, they will decide where next, but the Donetsk area would be a definite priority,” he tells me.
No one knows for sure. The fog of war is dense in the east, so when I visit the presidential administration in Kyiv after returning from the Donbas, I am looking for a clearer perspective. I meet Mykhailo Podolyak, a main adviser to Volodymyr Zelensky, one of a very restricted group of people the president sees every day. You may remember him from the video recorded the day after the invasion where the president said, “We are all here.” He was also part of the initial peace negotiations that took place in Belarus in the days after the invasion, an effort Podolyak says gained some valuable time for Ukraine’s defence.
While sitting in the office’s waiting room before our meeting, I hear him shout at an assistant: “There are only three heroes here: the president, the armed forces, and the Ukrainian people who have supported their armed forces.” Keeping egos in check is a challenge for every government, but one of vital importance during war.
There is no mistaking the mood in the building. Nothing has changed since last year: the multiple security checks, the sandbags spread on the stairs, the darkness along the halls. I notice Podolyak has perhaps a dozen pairs of shoes and sneakers in a corner of his office, which looks puzzling at first. The explanation, of course, is that the president and his main advisers are still living in a deep bunker under the palace and administration, a bunker built during Soviet times to withstand a nuclear explosion.
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One of the main questions I have is about the exact state of affairs in Luhansk and Donetsk. The regions are experiencing “the fiercest battles”, Podolyak says, “which make up 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the total military operations on the front line. They do not go in large columns, as was customary for Russia – 30, 50, 100 people. And it takes place in different parallel directions, not only in Bakhmut, but also in other directions in Donetsk and Luhansk. There are both heavy battles and the accumulation of reserves going on at the same time.” He adds: “This is Russia’s last chance to gain the initiative.”
I ask him to give me as much detail as possible on how a Ukrainian victory would unfold. Ukrainian officials talk a lot about victory, but so far the prospect seems vague and undefined, which makes it more difficult for many in the West to believe in Ukraine’s final victory or, in some cases, even to take it seriously. Would, for instance, Russia realise its technological gap and withdraw? Will factional conflict in Moscow force the Kremlin to focus on political survival? Will casualties finally become too large for Russian society?
“I will certainly not tell you what we will do on the battlefield,” Podolyak says. “But I will make a small remark: you vastly overestimate the intelligence, the collective intelligence of the Russian Federation. They will not be able to notice the moment when they objectively have begun to lose. They will miss it.”
The historical process is “objective, mathematical”, he adds. “Even during war.” In his view, the end of the war will unfold more or less in the following way: Russia will embark on some minor offensive actions in a short period of time. A lot of manpower will be lost. After that, it will face a series of significant defeats – three or possibly four – on the battlefield. These will be defeats, for example, in the Donetsk direction: Russia will lose the city of Donetsk. These could be defeats in the Zaporizhzhia direction in the south-east: it will lose the city of Melitopol or Berdyansk, and Ukraine will gain access to the Azov Sea. This could include the loss of Luhansk. Russia’s lack of intelligent organisation will make those defeats inevitable: “This is the problem of modern Russia.” “And at this moment,” Podolyak tells me, the decline of “the Russian army will become irreversible.”
Podolyak does not believe political protests in Russia will play a role in the defeat, but there will be unrest of a different nature: protests of relatives who have lost their loved ones, as a large number of wounded and amputees begin to appear on the streets. That will bring about “uncontrolled political transformation”, he says. At the same time, the republics in the North Caucasus, Kabardino-Balkaria or Tatarstan will “go into independent swimming” – a Russian idiom that describes how the country could come apart, a process Podolyak thinks will be more deliberate and “much more conscious than in 1991”.
All this is inevitable, in his view. “The question is how long it takes.” And here it is up to Western democracies to choose. If they want a long and destructive war, they should keep the supply of weapons to Ukraine limited. “You want the war to end quickly and correctly: more weaponry is needed. The less determination there is on this issue, the longer and with more tragic effects the war will continue. Long-range missiles, they allow you to very quickly stop any offensive, very quickly destroy the military capabilities of the Russian Federation, and significantly minimise the losses of Ukraine. First of all, to people, and secondly, to preserve the equipment that we receive, including from partners.”
In order to win, Ukraine needs to take the battle to the entire rear support, the entire logistical infrastructure of the Russian army. The question remains, as he sees it, “perfectly mathematical”.
Mykhailo Podolyak speaks of the “historical process” and the laws guiding it. He means the process by which political units rise and fall: in this case, the last throes of the ageing Russian empire and Ukraine’s final affirmation as a sovereign nation. Could these processes have happened without a war? Again, the past will often pull you back, against your best hopes and wishes. The logic of events does not diminish the devastation and suffering I witnessed everywhere in Donetsk, but it gives them a meaning, and this meaning in turn will help shape the war’s final outcome.
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This article was originally published on 1 February and is being repromoted ahead of the anniversary of the war in Ukraine.
This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con