Russian troops are ratcheting up their efforts to secure full control of the entire Donbas area in eastern Ukraine – and from what we have witnessed, there’s very little which is going to stop them right now.
A huge chunk of the industrial heartland has already fallen to the Russian military, allowing President Vladimir Putin to declare a significant victory after his troops seized the Luhansk region with the capture of the city of Lysychansk, the last Ukrainian stronghold there.
The Russians already control most of Donetsk, the second half of the Donbas, and the signs are they are moving to claim the rest of it.
The past few days have already seen increased attacks on the cities of Sloviansk and Bakhmut in the Donetsk region – and the frontline towns of Krasnohorivka and Marinka are also particularly vulnerable.
The areas have been fiercely contested for the past eight years and Putin launched his ‘special military operation’ in February after unilaterally declaring Donetsk and Luhansk ‘independent’.
The governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Haidai, said: “The loss of the Luhansk region is painful because it is the territory of Ukraine. For me personally, this is special. This is the homeland where I was born and I am also the head of the region.”
The Ukrainian troops we’ve been speaking to have told us over and over again they feel outgunned and overwhelmed by the superior numbers of heavy Russian artillery which they are being bombarded with.
They’re hoping the arrival of foreign-supplied heavy artillery from America and Europe can help them reverse the tide but it may have arrived too late for the Ukrainians to keep hold of the Donbas.
We are the first British journalists to be given access to see the French-made Caesar howitzers which are now being used to try to hold back the Russian military in the Donbas.
French President Emmanuel Macron has already supplied 12 Caesars and, after the G7 summit, he committed to providing another six. The heavy artillery is highly valued for its accuracy and can reach targets much further away – up to 30 miles away.
The Ukrainian troops from the 55th Brigade who we watched using the Caesars told us the howitzers are much more versatile and offers them a mobility which helps safeguard the crew.
The gun can be readied to fire in about 60 seconds flat, and in even less time (about 40 seconds) it can be on the move again to keep out of the reach of enemy return fire.
The truck’s commander said his men spent 10 days learning how to operate the weaponised truck in France. “What we need is more of guns like this,” he told us. “More people to help train us. All we need is more ammunition and then everything else we will do by ourselves.”
They know they’re on the backfoot right now but there’s still a very high level of optimism about the long-term future here and he had this message for the Russians who’re still busy celebrating their seizing of Luhansk. ”It’s not for long,” the commander says. “We will kick you out and get it all back.”
For those towns right up against the Russian line of control, where they’ve been fighting for the past eight years, the immediate future looks decidedly grim.
We saw boxes of aid being unloaded for the residents of Krasnohorivka and watched as the aid workers went through a long list of about 6,000 people who they say desperately need help.
One of them is Valentina who tells us she saw her neighbour die the day before after a shell landed near her house. The residents feel caught in the middle of this land grab and attacked by both sides.
She said: “When you’re in the basements, fear just takes you over. It’s fear and horror. Just horror.”
We asked her who she thought was attacking her. “They say it’s coming from that side (she points in one direction) but we think it’s coming from the other side (she gestures in the opposite direction). It’s difficult to know. It’s just really scary and I want to say, we just want peace…”
Her voice breaks and she sobs unashamedly at the wretchedness of the situation here.
We see a hospital which has been repeatedly bombed. It’s barely functioning, has very few patients and even fewer medical staff, with medicines fast running out.
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In Marinka, which is even closer to the Russian troops, they say the Russians are using all types of artillery and all types of missile.
The police showed us parts of what they say are air bombs used for firing phosphorous, an explosive which produces a longer lasting flame which sticks to its target.
Again, we saw very familiar and terrifying Russian tactics – hit, hit, hit, destroy and flatten then slowly advance.
They are tactics which are proving successful in the Donbas, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting since the beginning of the war in February, and where Putin has concentrated his military power since the failure to capture the Ukrainian capital Kyiv early on.
Alex Crawford’s crew are cameraman Jake Britton and producers Chris Cunningham, Artem Lysak, Jake Jacobs, Misha Cherniak and Misha Petrenko.