Soldiers and civilians fear what comes next as Russia gains momentum in eastern Ukraine

Okeretyne, Ukraine

A T-64 tank sits hidden in a trench just outside Chasiv Yar, surrounded by the cacophony of Russian troops trying to take Ivanivske, a small village on the outskirts of Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine.

Yet the gun was not fired once during a 72-hour period, which CNN witnessed during an hour-long visit. The reason? A lack of Soviet-era grenades using it. Instead, Ukrainian soldiers say they must wait for an order to join the fighting around them.

The unit’s commander, Yaroslav, said he understood that the war in Ukraine could feel “very far away” to Western politicians. ‘But this war is taking place in my country. I don’t know… imagine war on your doorstep. Would you hesitate then? We need those weapons. The enemy is much stronger. Without their help we will not survive, we will not stand as a nation, as a country. We will simply be destroyed.”

The noise in the trench where they hide is endless, and the troops call this a “quiet” day. Russian Lancet attack drones have hit their positions in recent weeks. Yaroslav is not optimistic about what will happen if the $60 billion military aid package currently stuck in the United States Congress does not materialize.

“I think we will all die,” said Yaroslav. ‘Everyone who’s here. We won’t be there anymore. This will not only be a European problem. The Russians will advance towards Europe.”

In another nearby area, soldiers manning a US-donated Paladin artillery unit were less fatalistic, having a supply of US grenades on hand. They fired twice when CNN visited, but the skyline around them was peppered with constant explosions of Russian-launched weapons, and their commander, Oleksandr, expressed reservations about the coming battle.

“We have problems, a lack of ammunition,” he said. “We have enough to work with, but try to be more precise to save rounds.” He said the Russian “attack is big and (we) may not have enough ammunition.”

04:24 – Source: CNN

Ukrainian tank unit near front lines does not fire for three days


Remnants of Ukrainian ammunition being fired.

Russian forces appear to have been gaining strength along the complex eastern front lines running from two cities they captured after months of brutal fighting: Avdiivka two weeks ago and Bakhmut last May. Although they claim some success in Ivanivske, just west of Bakhmut, it is west of Avdiivka where Moscow has made greater progress.

Three villages that Russia initially seized – Lastochkyne, Stepove and Sieverne – have little significance, with Kiev claiming their defense line should always have been further back. Yet that same new defense line – through another axis of three villages, Orlivka, Tonenke and Berdychi – has also come under intense Russian attack, with pro-Russian sources claiming a foothold on the edges of each village.

While the attacks are increasing, they point to a broader issue on Ukraine’s frontlines, where soldiers have been critical of their leaders’ willingness to defend territory once the army withdrew from Avdiivka.

“I think it is the mistake of our forces not to prepare normal positions behind Avdiivka,” said a special forces soldier. “If we had prepared positions behind Avdiivka for our infantry to fall back to, we would have kept them there for a very long time.”

Another fighter, an American volunteer from Georgia, Garrison Foster, described the equipment crisis in dire terms: “I think this year is going to be the worst year in the war. There are certain units that are… running out of tanks.”

He expressed anger at the move by the Republican-led Congress to block US aid. “It’s indescribable because I find it so ridiculous. I mean, the amount of nonsense that comes out of the politics of the whole thing is just completely ridiculous. There is no point in painting this in any light if it is good for us for Russia to take over Ukraine. That will be very bad for us.”

Anna Maja Rappard/CNN

Residents of the eastern Ukrainian village of Zhelanie are evacuated due to continued shelling.

CNN witnessed signs of a furious Russian attack across the front lines around Avdiivka. In the battered village of Ocheretyne, the next on Russia’s path after Berdychi, local residents seemed unable to leave, or, in the case of Euhene, 32, “sat on their suitcases” ready to flee if the Russians broke through .

He said: “We packed the bags yesterday: clothes and supplies. If the situation becomes critical… we are friends with the guys (Ukrainian soldiers), they come here for water. I think they will tell us.” He said of Russian progress: “We did not expect this. We thought somehow it would settle down, settle down.”

Two doors down was Viktor, who complained that he had repeatedly made holes in his roof from shelling. “I just want the shelling to stop!” he said. He wistfully recalled how Ocheretyne was a prosperous village before the war. “I have been married to my wife for 52 years. And we will be buried together. Here. Right in that ditch,” he said, pointing to the trench outside. Across the skyline, relentless artillery fire rang out.

In nearby Zhelanie, several elderly residents had finally decided to flee and used the ‘White Angels’ evacuation service, run by a special Ukrainian police unit.

The battle for nearby Avdiivka had continued since Russia’s first invasion in 2014, but was now too close to ignore. “The house already shook four times,” says Valentina (74). “It is made of clay and straw. They’re shooting so hard that every time I think we’re done, we’re done. The most terrifying thing is when they come here,” she said of the Russians. “People whose hands are covered in blood cannot have confidence.”

Closer to Bakhmut, in Khasiv Yar, some locals anxiously asked not to appear on camera, appearing resigned to – or possibly even welcoming – a possible Russian advance.

Standing outside an aid distribution point, one man said: “Peace is peace. I want to see my granddaughter. She is in Moscow. My sister is in Kaliningrad. Half of Russia are my relatives. But I’m alone here.

Another woman, who asked to speak anonymously, said Ukrainian soldiers had encamped near civilians, drawing Russian fire on the area and using up local resources.

“No water, no gas, no electricity, nothing. When we go to fetch water, there are also soldiers fetching water. And they take all the water with them,” she said.

“They drive straight to the houses where people live. And fire directly from the house. They hide behind the backs of the citizens.”

Ukrainian forces have always urged people to avoid civilian areas and ask residents to leave.

Regardless of allegiance, the sound of Russia’s advance and the brutality its forces have displayed elsewhere in occupied Ukraine are getting closer.

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