Donbas is feeling the brunt of the recent defeats of the Russian military.
President of the country, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said the twin regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine were being “turned into hell”. He’s right. They are.
The towns and cities here are being battered; Homes and businesses are being destroyed by this war.
Their inhabitants are being persecuted. The family is divided. People are being killed and massacred and tens of thousands of people are racing for their lives.
Severodonetsk in Luhansk was Ukraine’s last resistance and the Russians wanted the city so they could finish capturing all of Luhansk and then move to Donetsk.
Their disastrous attempt to cross the Donets in the village of Bilohorivka recently to encircle Severodonetsk and take all of Luhansk meant a dramatic rewrite of the military plan.
And reordering means changing tactics and increasing speed.
Ukraine’s military has allowed a handful of people on the field in what it claims is its biggest military victory since World War II.
We were led by a Ukrainian military guide through jungle routes to an area that will go down in Ukrainian military history as a significant strategic victory over their much larger enemy.
The area is now a graveyard of Russian military vehicles.
‘Some sort of suicide club’
There were used cartridges, unexploded ordnance, grenades and piles of burnt corpses of army transporters scattered across the scorched farmland west of the river.
The Ukrainians say that hundreds of Russian soldiers died in a failed plan.
They tried to build a pontoon bridge over the river using smoke as a hiding place but the Ukrainians waited and launched a fierce defense – what they say was a Russian battalion, destroying around 70 enemy troops. facilities and hundreds of troops.
“Looks like they’re some sort of suicide club or their commander just doesn’t care about them,” Yuri tells us.
“It’s strange. They just sent them to die… and they obeyed stupid, stupid orders from their commander.”
The bodies had already been cleared by the time we were granted access, so it’s difficult to verify the death toll, but there was definitely a ferocious attack here.
The impact has lifted Ukrainians’ morale while also seemingly sparking really substantial criticism of the Russian leader himself, Vladimir Putin.
It also seems to have pressured the Russians to change tactics.
After the failed siege of the capital Kyiv or the second city of the country Kharkiv, the humiliating disaster at Bilohorivka. prompted a change of direction.
Picking up baby food from the rubble
The Russians did not give up their ambition to capture Severodonetsk.
They have just moved a few kilometers south and are focusing heavily on the town of Soledar, which could be a prelude to cutting off Severodonetsk.
Soledar is paying the price with missiles and rockets. The main street has a large crater in the middle. The town’s theater is mostly ruins.
We saw men carrying bags of whatever they could find from among the ruins inside.
One man, calling himself Alex, told us how he picked up baby food and packages of pasta from the ruins of the theater. It had been used to store humanitarian aid before the bombings the day before.
With sweat streaming down his face as he carried bags from the theater, Alex told us he didn’t believe the bombs were Russian anyway.
“These are Ukrainian bombs here,” he said. “Not Russian”.
He went on to say that he believes the only way to stop the war is if Ukraine gives up the Donbas – and he insists they should.
That is an outcome that is completely inconsistent with most Ukrainians, starting with President Zelenskyy.
But the damage this war caused to the country was enormous – in terms of human and economic sacrifice. And the president predicts the final phase will be the bloodiest. He is almost certainly right.
Alex Crawford reports from Donbas with cameraman Jake Britton, producers Chris Cunningham, Artem Lysak, Nick Davenport and Misha Cherniak.