In military terms, this is called a “penetrating”. In eastern Ukraine, a national road cutting through the rolling plain is shaping up to be one of the main battlegrounds for the impending Russian offensive in the Donbass. Connecting the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, this two-lane tarmac tongue, dotted here and there with hardwoods, is one of the main axes in the northeast of the country.
It enters like an arrow into the heart of Donbass still under Ukrainian control, which has become a cauldron surrounded by the two pro-Russian separatist “republics” of Donetsk in the south and Lugansk in the east, and now under the pressure of a Russian steamroller. came from the north.
“We are waiting for them!” Says, with a big smile and a thumbs up, a lieutenant whose section is busy reinforcing its positions on the sides of this road with logs.
hold the asphalt
“We are going to destroy the enemy who has come to invade our motherland, fascist Russia, you can’t call it anything else. Who lives by the sword will perish by the sword”, promises the young officer with dimples and dagger on the par -ball. “Let western countries give us more vehicles, let them help us close the skies (to Russian planes). And victory will be ours.”
Trenches dug with bulldozers, artillery pieces and other more or less buried armored vehicles dot the surroundings. The forest, where soft flowerbeds of purple bells herald spring, is riddled with shelters and other camouflaged equipment promising much more sinister showers of fire.
The fortified road is cluttered with anti-tank obstacles. While winter is over, and the soggy black earth limits the progress of tanks in neighboring crops, we must hold the asphalt.
After capturing Izium a few days ago, Russian troops are now camped about twenty kilometers north of the twin cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, capital of Donbass controlled by kyiv.
For the American think tank Institute for the study of war (ISW), “Sloviansk will be the next crucial battle of the war in Ukraine”.
On either side of the road between Russian Izioum and Ukrainian Sloviansk, the village of Krasnopillia marks the front line, stabilized there for two weeks.
“The Russians are busy, we know they are preparing to attack,” said a senior officer, referring to an increase in Russian helicopter flights over the front, usually synonymous with a large-scale attack.
“We are ready. (…) We have prepared a few surprises for them”, comments this robust veteran of the 2014 war, wounded twice, who “almost lost his right leg” and now walks like a guy.
Krasnopillia, with its Slavic country houses with enclosures and wooden transom windows, is full of soldiers, members of the 95th Airmobile Brigade, an elite unit with the eagle in emblem. Do they fear the coming Russian hurricane? “You know the story of David and Goliath…”, replies the officer.
Another sign of the coming war, ambulances with red crosses – so important for the morale of the soldier – are stationed under the trees. As the artillery fire shook the ground, one of them rushed to the front with two nurse soldiers on board.
A few kilometers east of the national road, another configuration, undoubtedly more favorable to the Ukrainians: the winding Severski Donets river constitutes a natural obstacle for the invader, in a very different landscape of small Switzerland made of wooded hills and fir trees.
Several of the eight impoundments on the river were opened by the Ukrainians to make crossing it even more difficult. The Severski Donets came out of its bed, “its level rose by almost two meters”, according to a resident.
The bridges have been blown up, as in the village of Bogoroditchne, where only old people remain.
“Everyone is tense at the moment, the old people didn’t want to leave,” observes Artur Nazarov, 58, the director of the local school. “Here is the end of the road, we have made provisions, we are waiting…”, he concludes, to the sound of cannon in the distance, in front of his sagging bridge.
A single bridge was spared, three kilometers downstream, in the small tourist town of Sviatogirsk, but it too is destined for destruction.
On the hillside, the Orthodox monastery -under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate- of the “Holy Mountain” normally attracts pilgrims and visitors, who come to enjoy the soothing atmosphere of this spiritual place.
The place is also known for its statue of comrade “Artyom”, planted in 1927 overhanging the mountain by the Soviets in homage to a local Bolshevik “hero”.
Below, the single-lane bridge that spans a hundred meters over the swollen waters of the Severski Donets is already mined, ready to be sabotaged.
On this side of the river, the Ukrainians are on borrowed time, and they know it. “When the Russians launch their offensive, we will have an hour or two at most to evacuate to the west bank,” said local territorial defense commander Andrei Bezroutchko.
The Russian troops are a handful of kilometers further north, in the village of Passika in particular. And they are not necessarily on hostile ground.
“The local population is 80% pro-Russian,” says Andreï, the Kalash slung over his shoulder. In civilian life, this 43-year-old “businessman” is notably the owner of one of the main restaurants in Sviatogirsk.
“Of course when the city is taken, I will lose everything, my business, my house. Everyone knows me here, I am constantly threatened”, he shrugs, showing the death threat text messages received on his laptop.
The forecourt of the Sviatogirsk monastery is also the site of an astonishing daily ride, an illustration of the complexities of this Donbass war.
Every morning, cars meet to leave in convoy towards the zone under Russian control, with the tacit agreement of the Ukrainian forces. “These people think that they will be safer in the occupied territories,” comments Andreï with contempt.
In the afternoon, convoys of civilians arrive from the Russian zone. Sviatogirsk is a corridor, a discreet contact zone where inhabitants can still pass from one camp to another. “Cars pass in both directions, everyone still has a choice,” admits Andrei.
In this part of the Donbass the consecrated expression of the “fog of war” is confirmed once again: the belligerents face each other on a national road, the battle promises to be bloody; a few kilometers away, a precarious passage zone for civilians, which will be cut off as soon as the assailant moves.