Ablood-stained mattress lay in the dank basement of a bombed-out hotel where Russian troops were based until Ukraine’s soldiers forced them out last month. Abandoned army rations and sleeping bags indicated a rapid departure.
Not long ago, Sviati Hory [Holy Mountains] National Park was a popular tourist spot. The war has transformed this once tranquil area in the north of Donetsk region, centred on a 17th monastery, into an apocalyptic landscape littered with the grim detritus of Russia’s failing invasion.
On the way to the park, a tank bearing the Kremlin’s pro-war “Z” symbol lay semi-submerged in a river, its gun poking from the water. Nearby was another destroyed tank, its turret sliced off. The stench of death hung in the air among the towering pine trees. Deeper into the forest, on a hiking trail, a missile protruded from the earth.
Only ten miles away, partially surrounded Russian forces were then still hanging on to Lyman, the next big prize in the war. The thud of shelling pierced the eerie silence.
Today Russia’s defence ministry announced a withdrawal from the important rail hub, dealing a significant blow to Russia’s attempts to control the Donbas, the coal-mining area that includes both the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Earlier President Zelensky’s chief of staff had posted video of soldiers waving a Ukrainian flag on the outskirts of the town. In response to the humiliation Ramzan Kadyrov, the influential head of Russia’s region of Chechnya, called for Moscow to take “more drastic measures”, including the use of “low-yield nuclear weapons”.
The loss of Lyman exposed the fiction of the glittering ceremony held on Friday in the Kremlin, following sham referendums in four Ukrainian regions.
Speaking in the Kremlin’s ornate St George’s Hall, President Putin told his country’s political elite and a live television audience that Russia would annex Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhya regions, none of which are fully controlled by Russian forces. Together they are roughly the size of Portugal and make up 15 per cent of Ukraine. Ukraine had warned that such a land grab would kill any hope of a negotiated peace.
In his most aggressive speech since he came to power to 22 years ago, Putin declared that Russia was locked in an existential struggle with the “enemy” in the West and that the four regions would remain part of Russia for ever.
In a thinly veiled nuclear threat, he warned that his country would defend its new lands “with all the forces and means at our disposal”.
Yet even as Putin spoke in Moscow, Ukrainian forces were coming close to encircling his soldiers in Lyman, deep inside the territory he was claiming.
“Mobilisation won’t help the Russians much,” a Ukrainian military officer near the town told me. “Artillery and tanks rule here. Draftees will just be cannon fodder.”
Tens of thousands of young Russians have fled abroad in the days since the military began calling up civilians to shore up the Kremlin’s war effort.
Many of those already fighting are clearly demoralised.
In Yatskivka, a village by the national park, Russian forces had abandoned their weapons, boxes of ammunition and explosives in their desperation to escape.
“They left everything when they fled,” said Maxim, 25, the manager of a hotel. “I handed over a bazooka and Kalashnikovs to our soldiers.” He led me to a freshly disturbed grave. “A Russian solider was lying here for days before we buried him because he was starting to rot,” he said. “He was dug up yesterday so that his body could be exchanged for our dead.” There were patches of blood on the ground.
Russian missiles are still delivering death and destruction, however. In Sviatohirsk, the nearest town to the national park, rockets slammed into a five-storey block of flats last Saturday, killing one woman and injuring six other people. Her body was still trapped in the burnt-out building when we arrived.
On the ground floor, Halyna, a pensioner, sobbed as she salvaged her possessions from the shattered shell of her apartment. Sviatohirsk was occupied by Russia’s army in early June and liberated in mid-September. Although some humanitarian aid is now getting through, the town remains largely cut off from the outside world.
“There’s no water, no gas, no electricity, no doctors here. Nothing,” said Oleksander, a man in his sixties, while his wife, Zinaida, sobbed. “We haven’t seen bread in a month. The Russians fed us just twice during the entire time that the city was under occupation. I thought I would die from hunger.”
They have been cooking on a bonfire since May, when the power to the town was cut, and have to trek to the nearest village, about two miles away, for water. Last month the roof of their apartment block was destroyed in the fire that broke out when the neighbouring flats were struck by a Russian rocket.
The couple were unable to flee to the relative safety of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, because they are looking after two elderly women. One is in her late eighties and the other is 96 and blind, said Zinaida. “We’ve appealed for the authorities to do something, otherwise they are going to starve to death or die of cold.”
A child’s swing had somehow remained intact after the blast that killed their neighbour. Possessions were strewn throughout the rubble. Someone’s record collection had been blown out of the building. Albums by Madonna and Boney M littered the ground.
“The Russians were more like a gang than an army,” said Marina, a resident. “They were wearing shorts and T-shirts and were drunk all the time. And they all had automatic weapons.” Minutes after she spoke, a Ukrainian bomber screamed overhead, flying only 50 metres or so above the ground.
In Izyum, a recently liberated town near Kharkiv, shell-shocked residents gathered on the central square. “I could have kissed the feet of our soldiers when I saw them,” said Halyna Ivanivna. “I lost 15 kilos in weight during the Russian occupation.”
Others had more complicated responses. “The Russian soldiers were kind,” said Nikolai, a 25-year-old with deep-set haunted eyes who spoke in low, subdued tones. “They brought us food and money and they gave the children sweets.”
But moments later he revealed that the Russians had thrown him into a deep pit and interrogated him for hours. “They also cut one man’s finger off,” he said. “And another went crazy after being tortured with electric shocks.”
The devastation is everywhere and it will take years to restore infrastructure to the region when the fighting stops. In some areas, barely a building has escaped unscathed. Near Izyum’s central square, a mural of John Lennon with the words “Give Peace a Chance” is scarred with bullet holes and shell damage. The nearby Yoko café, named after Lennon’s widow, was destroyed, its interior a mess of blackened metal.
Close to one abandoned Russian base I found the diary of a self-described Russian mercenary with Z and V symbols stuck to the cover. The 20-year-old had time to write two brief entries before he was killed, captured or forced to flee. In one, dated June 1, he describes how he narrowly escaped death in a Ukrainian missile attack. “My first thought was ‘This is it, I’m f***ed’,” he wrote.
The people left here cling to any signs of hope. Last week, the bells at the old monastery began ringing for the first time since Russian troops arrived in May. The bridge, which believers once crossed to receive blessings from priests, was blown up by Ukraine’s army to prevent the Russians crossing the river. The pealing of bells now fills the air. “This must be a sign that life will return to our town, right?” said one local. “We just need to get through the winter, somehow.”