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Why The Battle For Donbas Could Decide The War In Ukraine

Vladimir Putin badly needs a victory, and may be ready to unleash Russia's deadliest assault to date. But Ukraine has its best fighters in the eastern region, fighting a war there since 2014, and may have several key tactical advantages.

Photo of Ukrainian soldiers on a Russian tank flying Ukraine's flag

Ukrainian soldiers return to Demydiv after Russian troops' withdrawal.

Anna Akage and Irene Caselli

Even after last week’s bloody attack on the Kramatorsk railway station, the trains have not stopped running. Here in the Donbas region, a new flock of soon-to-be refugees continue to flee what Vladimir Putin has promised will be the next main theater of hostilities in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Families arrived by bus to Slovyansk, half an hour from Kramatorsk, to catch the last trains heading west. "It's the second war we've lived through — eight years ago we stayed, this time it’s much worse, there is no certainty of tomorrow,” one local told Francesco Semprini, reporting for Italian daily La Stampa.

Indeed, in the neighboring region of Luhansk, shelling has already picked up in recent days, leaving more and more residents without power, gas and water. Sergei Gaidai, head of the Luhansk Regional State Administration, used the messaging platform Telegram to explain what local officials are up against:

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

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