Ukrainians say they are largely overwhelmed by Russia in the battle for Donbass: NPR

A man walks past a destroyed school in the town of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donbass region on Saturday.

Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

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Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

A man walks past a destroyed school in the town of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donbass region on Saturday.

Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

EASTERN UKRAINE — As soon as the dented bus pulled up outside the military hospital in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region, its doors opened and wounded Ukrainian soldiers slowly began hobbling along.

They were walking wounded – more than 40 in all – with bloody bandages and exhausted faces. Nurses rushed in with wheelchairs. A soldier struggling to walk limped into a tree and vomited.

It was a rare first-hand view of the daily toll of the fierce fighting currently raging in eastern Ukraine as Russia pushes its offensive here. And while many Ukrainians are still rejoicing in the successful defense of Kyiv, the battle in the Donbass is a punishing drudgery that poses different challenges.

Here, in the vast, rolling farmlands of the east, Russia’s superior firepower gives its army a distinct advantage, and its forces are steadily advancing day by day.

This week, Russian troops appeared to take over much of the town of Lyman, which sits at a strategic transport point. It comes as Russia pushes to encircle the nearby city of Severodonetsk, the last major Ukrainian outpost in the Luhansk region.

A senior US defense official said Russia had made “additional gains”, although its forces faced “significant” losses.

Ukraine, too, is suffering heavy casualties, which was clear during a recent NPR visit to a military hospital near the front. Doctors and nurses moved quickly through the dark hallways. Wounded soldiers, many sleeping, filled beds in crowded rooms.

The facility is a primary treatment center for wounded soldiers on the northern Donbass front. NPR agreed not to divulge its location because Russia has previously bombed hospitals during the war.

“We operate on around 100 patients a day here,” said a senior surgeon, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Three quarters of them are soldiers, the rest are civilians.”

The surgeon’s graying hair was cut short. He had bags under his eyes. After finishing a cigarette, he quickly lit another.

It has enough staff, he says, but the pace of work is grueling.

“That’s why I look tired,” he said. “We’ve been at war for three months, but I’m prepared to be tired for as long as it takes for us to win.”

Ukrainian soldiers say they don’t have the right weapons

The Donbass is an agricultural and industrial region. Vast fields of yellow flowers and green shoots stretch across the landscape. Giant slag heaps from coal mines dot the horizon.

This region has been at war since Russian-backed separatists declared breakaway republics in 2014. But the fight has taken on new urgency since Russia’s full-scale invasion in late February, and Moscow’s military is slowly gaining land here.

The further east you go towards the front lines, the fewer civilians there are in the villages and towns. Most stores are closed. Traffic on the roads becomes almost exclusively Ukrainian military.

On a recent drive to the town of Bakhmut, around 30 tanks and armored personnel carriers could be seen, all heading towards the front. Damaged military vehicles loaded onto heavy trucks were driving in the opposite direction.

The geography of Donbass makes it an artillery war, and Ukrainian soldiers say that at the moment they are largely overwhelmed.

“To date, Moscow has much more heavy weapons, including artillery and ammunition, and they are using it,” said Sergej Shakun, a territorial defense chief in the Luhansk region. “We need more heavy weapons.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been advocating for more heavy weapons for months. The United States and European countries have sent some, but the quantities so far are limited.

The Biden administration, for example, provided Ukraine with about 100 howitzers, which have a greater range than Ukrainian artillery.

Shakun said American weapons were helping, but he said they needed more.

“The Russians are hunting them down,” he said. “As soon as the howitzers fire, they have to move so they don’t get hit themselves. To date, five of the howitzers have already been damaged.”

The Ukrainian army also faces other problems.

On a recent morning in Bakhmut, a group of young soldiers expressed their deep frustration with the military. They agreed to speak on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about the war effort.

They said they had only had two weeks of training before being sent to Donbass to fight. Their weapons are outdated, they said, some dating back to World War II.

At the front, they are constantly bombarded by the Russians.

“They hit us with cluster bombs, then Grad rockets, then artillery again and again,” said one of the soldiers. “They give us a cigarette break for a minute and then it all starts again.”

Some of them said that in several days at the front they had not fired a single shot. All they did was get bombed. What good is a rifle against long-range artillery, they ask.

“We didn’t even understand where the Russians were shooting from. It was just raining from above,” said one. “This is not an infantry war.”

They say they want to fight, but only if they have good equipment and good artillery and better battlefield tactics.

Residents of some areas live under constant bombardment

A building hit by shelling is pictured in Severodonetsk, eastern Ukraine, May 18.

Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

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Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

A building hit by shelling is pictured in Severodonetsk, eastern Ukraine, May 18.

Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

Many civilians fled Donbass after Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February. For those who stayed, life is tough – the difficulty depends on their proximity to the front lines.

In villages and towns beyond the reach of Russian artillery there is still water and electricity, although gasoline is hard to come by. At gas stations that still have fuel, the queue can last for hours.

In places like Severodonestk, meanwhile, residents live under constant bombardment.

“He was basically flattened out,” said a woman who gave only her first name, Olga.

She said she hid in the basement of her building with other residents for weeks before contracting pneumonia and having to be moved to the city hospital.

After a month there, she was evacuated this week to Kramatorsk, a town 40 miles to the west but still within range of Russian forces.

She does not know if she will return to Severodonetsk if the Russians capture the city and end up annexing the territory.

“When you’re sitting in the basement and you hear explosions, you’re like, ‘let anybody come here, just leave it alone,'” she said. “We don’t care who we live under. Let it just be peaceful.”

Sitting in the back of a Red Cross ambulance in Kramatorsk as she waited to be evacuated further west, she wept as she thought of the home and town she had fled.

“Every street had roses and chestnut trees,” she said with a sigh. “Roses and Chestnut Trees.”

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