The battle for the Donbas is being waged across small villages in what is commonly known as “Ukrainian Switzerland” are now paying the price for Russia’s defeat in Kyiv, risking to forever change this longtime tourist destination.
SVIATOHIRSK — A few kilometers from this quaint village, internet and cell phone reception has suddenly vanished. Clouds of smoke rise from the region's familiar pine forests that stretch deep green to the horizon. The village of Sviatohirsk has indeed long been a holiday destination in the north of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, commonly known as “Ukrainian Switzerland”.
A special attraction is a 17th century monastery with its gold roofs perched on white rocks on the banks of the Siverskyi Donets River. For generations, Ukrainians would come here for vacation.
But now there is war here in Sviatohirsk. For three weeks now, the Russian army has been attacking the small town with just 4,000 inhabitants. They have reached within two kilometers of the town.
Scorched earth in Sviatohirsk
“You want to get to the frontline?” Ukrainian commander Vladimir angrily asks, waving his radio around. “Sviatohirsk is the frontline. Missiles and mortars are hitting every day. Just look around!”
Russians are only advancing because they’re bombing all the villages to the ground.
Military officers like to exaggerate a bit. But you quickly realize that the situation is indeed serious. The small town is deserted. Only soldiers are sitting in the few vehicles that are on the road. They race along the streets at top speed to avoid possible shelling. They park their cars next to house walls or under trees for protection.
“This week, the Russians advanced five kilometers,” explains Vladimir, who keeps his last name to himself. You can tell by the officer’s hesitation how reluctant he is to admit it. “They’re only advancing because they’re bombing all the villages to the ground,” he tells reporters just outside of the city, at an adventure playground in the forest.
Sviatohirsk is getting a taste of the scorched earth policy that Russian troops are applying in Ukraine. The army leadership has learned from its mistakes in Kyiv. Only when everything has been destroyed on a large scale will the ground troops advance.
The blitzkrieg strategy with which it wanted to take the Ukrainian capital within a few days in February failed miserably. In the age of modern armor-piercing weapons, rolling columns of tanks spearheading an offensive are hardly effective.
Now Putin’s army is relying on brute force in the form of artillery and rocket fire. The Ukrainians cannot sustain it in the long run. They will have to retreat at some point if they don’t want to lose all the soldiers in their positions.
Ukrainian civilian walking by the shelling crater that appeared after the Russian shelling in Sviatohirsk.
Heavy weapons for a 'positional' war
But Ukraine has also learned.
“Don’t ask me how, but we control the airspace over Sviatohirsk,” Vladimir says proudly, holding up his cap. “But what we still desperately need are heavy weapons,” says the 48-year-old, referring to guns with a range of up to 60 kilometers.
He adds to the list radar systems that can detect the ballistic trajectory of enemy projectiles. This would allow the defenders to locate and eliminate the artillery positions of the Russians.
“We are fighting a positional war here, almost like World War I,” Vladimir says. “If the heavy weapons we need arrive, we can stop the Russians,” the commander is convinced.
The starting point of the Russian attacks on Sviatohirsk is Izium, 20 kilometers to the north. A town of about 45,000 people, the Russian army captured it last month and made it the hub for its deployment in the Donbas. New troops arrive daily, especially the tactical battalion groups.
These 600-to 800-man units are considered the most powerful among Russian forces. They combine infantry, air defense, and armored units. According to U.S. intelligence, at least 76 of these battalions have been deployed in the Donbas so far. They suffered heavy losses in Kyiv. But in the Donbas, they are once again fighting on the front lines, and they are proceeding with their usual ferocity.
Catering for soldiers at amusement park
One of Vladimir’s bodyguards points to his watch, “Time to eat”.
The commander sits down at one of the covered wooden tables in the adventure playground. There is vegetable soup, potatoes with red sauce, and for dessert a sweet pastry filled with poppy seeds. If it weren’t for the constant thunder of guns, you would think it was a leisurely weekend getaway.
We all have to stick together to win.
The owner of the two-hectare adventure area entertains the soldiers here every day free of charge. His business collapsed when the war started.
Before the invasion, his park offered free climbing, walking on monkey bars, and boating on the river. "Normally, 30,000 people come to us every year," Igor Ponomarenko says.
He wears a bulletproof vest, but he doesn’t fight. “I’m just helping,” he says, showing off his paddle boats, which he rented out 1,500 times a year before the war. “But now everything is dead,” he says — without showing any frustration. “We all have to stick together to win,” he explains, laughing as if victory were a piece of cake.
The site of the last missile strike is a little off the main road in the woods. It is a small house that looks like a dacha, a weekend home. The roof is completely destroyed. Fortunately, the inhabitants fled weeks ago.
In the house next door, Ivan Viktornich is sweeping up the shards of his broken windowpanes. “I completely understand the Russians,” the 82-year-old says. “They have to do what they do because the Ukrainians have been bombing the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics for eight years.”
Viktornich speaks the propaganda of the Russian state media, as do so many Russian-speaking residents of this area. “Even if the missile had killed me, that would be okay,” the old man says, grinning. He is from Russia. His son lives in Moscow and his daughter in Donetsk, which is occupied by pro-Russian separatists.
“Of course, I only follow Russian media,” he says. “Because they show the truth.” Still, he has no negative consequences to fear here. “I don’t have the slightest problem speaking my mind,” Viktornich assures. “Truth is just truth,” he emphasizes once again and waves goodbye.
Photo of the Sviatohirsk monastery destroyed after Russian bombings
Helping those who stay behind
Masha has set up an aid center in a former toy store. The 21-year-old organized evacuations and medical care for the remaining population of Sviatohirsk. Around 500 people do not want to leave their homes.
“Mainly elderly people and children need our help,” Masha says, wearing a black top and camouflage pants. “The most urgent needs are insulin, medicines for heart problems and asthma.”
Masha obtains the medicines through nongovernmental organizations in Ukraine. “Anyone who needs something can call an emergency number, and we’ll get it if it’s not in stock,” Masha explains, pointing to some plastic bags of medicines assembled for the patients.
Someone has to help those people.
“We are very grateful for this service,” says Jelena, an elementary school teacher who is picking up medicines for her parents. “I come every week,” the 38-year-old says. “My father is diabetic and my mother has heart problems.”
She has been staying with her parents in Sydorove, a nearby village, since the war began. “So far, it’s still peaceful there,” Jelena says, hurriedly walking back to her car. She wants to get home as soon as possible.
Masha comes to Sviatohirsk almost every day, even though the city could soon fall into Russian hands. She is not afraid, she says, “someone has to help the people.” Still, she doesn’t want to go to the train station, which Commander Vladimir has recommended for a visit. “The place is not safe,” she says.
Indeed, there is little to see at the station. Excavators are digging new trenches along the road. A few soldiers with sniper rifles walk nervously up and down. They seem to be looking for firing positions. “The Russians are right back there,” one of them says, pointing east. “I would advise you to get out of there right away.” Shortly after, the muffled thunder of several mortars sounds, as if to underscore the warning.
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