By Nick Paton Walsh, Natalie Gallón, Konstantin Gak and Brice Lâiné , CNN
It is a road through scorched forest, open roofs and pockmarked asphalt where the devastation appears to seamlessly meld together into an endless line.
Ukraine’s push south from Kharkiv to Donetsk has been less advertised and heralded than its rout of Russian troops around the city of Kharkiv. But from a two-hour drive south to the monastery town of Sviatogirsk, it appears this military operation may be just as decisive.
Village after village, swept clear of Russian forces, with torn and rusting armor mixed with freshly smoldering tanks, line the country roads. The extent of the firepower employed by both sides, and also the accuracy of Ukraine’s newer Western-supplied weapons, is clear from the ghostly silence in so many tiny settlements.
Access to this fast-advancing front line was provided to CNN by Ukraine in a likely bid to display the gains Ukrainian forces have slowly made in this lower-profile offensive, which has been underway since the city of Izium fell earlier this month.
The ultimate goal is the city of Lyman, a railway hub whose outsized significance seems due to Russia’s staunch defense of the town, but also the significant advantage seizing the town would give Ukraine in its bid to retake the rest of the Luhansk region, coveted by Russia and partially occupied since 2014.
A separate push appears underway by Ukrainian forces slightly further northeast, towards the town of Svatove, and its south, pressuring the town of Rubizhne, which is also vital to Russia’s hold on Luhansk. Some analysts suggest Kyiv may be looking to provoke a similar domino effect to that which caused Russian forces around Kharkiv to collapse. Some ambitions rest on Lyman’s encirclement cascading and causing a Russian retreat from towns behind this logistical hub.
A Ukrainian soldier sent CNN video Thursday of abandoned Russian positions from Lypove and Zelena Dolyna, which would show swift progress towards the town of Torske, to Lyman’s east. In short, incremental gains by Ukraine’s forces are beginning to alter the specter of continued Russian control in Luhansk. This change comes in the hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign a decree formally and falsely declaring the occupied regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhizhe and Kherson as part of Russia.
In the town of Sviatogirsk, the challenge of Moscow annexing territory that Russian forces are slowly losing control of is laid bare. The quiet pines of the forests around its Cave Monastery are now blighted by the sheer force of the violence inflicted on this peaceful resort town. Holiday camps and hotels were seized and occupied by Russian forces and then used to house liberating Ukrainian troops.
It has the look of a town that will struggle to ever be itself again.
Walking down the center of an empty, central street, weeping, and clutching pine branches that will later burn to heat her tea, is 73-year-old Anna. It is the town’s most fragile who were left behind, it seems. Sobbing, she explains only nine people remain in her apartment block, and she nearly did not make it.
“The scariest moment was when the Russians one night were in a firefight in my courtyard,” she said. “I was in the doorway, and tried to hold the steel door shut. But a soldier pulled at the door, so I jumped down and fell into the basement. He tore open the door, shot his gun into the darkness and missed me.”
Close by, outside a ravaged post office, is Lyuba, who is hard of hearing, but incensed by the mess that the Russian occupiers have made of the new building.
She wears on her shirt a lock of hair, caught in a plastic zip-lock bag on a safety pin. It is from a local priest, beloved to her, who was killed by shelling in June. “I just attached it as a protective amulet,” said Lyuba.
Then, in a panic, she asked: “Do you think they will come back? Tell me, can I leave here now?”
Across the street is the local administration building, hit powerfully with a single rocket. Yet on its walls remain the dark graffiti of Russia’s occupying force.
“Forgive us,” reads one comment. Another wall bears the phrase “Rostov is Dad, Odessa Mum” in red spray paint — hinting at the shared history and parentage of many Russians with Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldier Dmytro, from the Kulchitskiy Battalion, who took part in the counteroffensive to liberate Sviatogirsk, said they watched the Russians a long time before attacking.
“You have to understand the psychology of someone who comes to a foreign land,” he said. “His mass media and his commander may tell him foolish idea, but when he gets here, he realizes he is really in alien territory.”
Locals stagger around the carnage of the town. It is hard to find a single building that is intact, or has any chance of providing shelter in the coming winter. Even the town’s second monastery is pockmarked by shellfire.
Yet in its cold, dark but orderly basement, dozens hid during the worst fighting and a handful still find shelter. The steps outside the church are scattered with ordinary signs of family life distant to the shell-damaged cross and damaged dome nearby: a doll and laundry on a clothesline, a kettle slowly boiling on a stone stove.
Inside the basement is Lyudmila. Just two days earlier, she was brought to tears by a sound that had comforted the forests here for centuries — the church bells.
“It rang, and I heard it, and I listened and it got louder,” she said. She has spent seven months in this shelter under harrowing uncertainty. Her disabled son was injured by shelling at the start of the war, and she now does not know where he is.
“The last time I saw him he was alive” she said, adding he was taken to hospital.
Another woman, Valeria, sits in the dark corner of the basement, in a chamber that used to hold eight people but is now hers alone.
“My children have left, been evacuated, and my apartment is destroyed,” she said. “Is it possible to leave here now?”
Outside, the shelling continues, as Ukraine seeks to reduce the territory Moscow will falsely claim as part of Russian in the days ahead, a land shredded by Russia’s war of choice.
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