In Sviatogirsk, Russia’s struggle to annex territories it cannot control is exposed

Sviatogirsk, Ukraine

It is a road through burning forests, open roofs, and stained asphalt, where the devastation seems to merge into an endless line.

Ukraine’s push south from Kharkiv to Donetsk has been less heralded and heralded than the retreat of Russian troops around the city of Kharkiv. But from a two-hour drive south to the monastery town of Sviatogirsk, it looks like this military operation could be just as decisive.

Village after village, cut off from Russian forces, with tattered and rusted armor, mixed with burning tanks, line the country roads. The extent of the firepower used by both sides, as well as the accuracy of the newest weapons supplied to Western Ukraine, is clear from the ghostly silence of so many small settlements.

Access to this fast-moving front line was provided to CNN by Ukraine, which is likely to show the gains Ukrainian forces have made in this slow-moving, low-level offensive, which has been underway since the city of Izium fell earlier this month.

The final objective is the city of Lyman, a railway hub that seems too important to Russia for its staunch defense of the town, but also where seizing the town would give Ukraine a huge advantage in its efforts to retake the Luhansk region. Russia and partially occupied since 2014.

Further north-east Ukrainian forces are making a separate push towards the town of Svatove and south of it, putting pressure on the town of Rubizhne, which is also vital to Russia’s hold on Luhansk. Some analysts suggest that Kiev wants to trigger a domino effect similar to the collapse of Russian forces around Kharkiv. Certain ambitions are based on the encirclement of Lyman, which results in a Russian withdrawal from the towns behind this logistical hub.

A Ukrainian soldier sent CNN video on Thursday of abandoned Russian positions at Lypove and Zelena Dolyna, which would show rapid advances toward the town of Torske, east of Lyman. In short, the gains made by Ukrainian forces are beginning to change the specter of continued Russian control of Luhansk. This change comes just as Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to formally and falsely sign a decree declaring the occupied regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhizhe and Kherson as part of Russia.

In the town of Sviatogirsk, the challenge to Moscow, where Russian forces are slowly losing control, has surfaced. The tranquil pine forests surrounding the cave monastery are now ravaged by the sheer force of violence unleashed on this peaceful resort town. Holiday camps and hotels were seized and occupied by Russian forces, who were then taken in by Ukrainian liberating troops.

It looks like a town that will never again fight to be itself.

Walking down the middle of an empty central street, crying and holding on to the pine branches that will be burned to heat the tea, is 73-year-old Anna. It seems to be the most fragile of the village they left behind. Sobbing, there are only nine people left in her apartment block and she almost didn’t make it.

“The scariest moment was when the Russians were at a bonfire in my backyard one night,” he said. “I was at the door, and I tried to keep the steel door closed. But a soldier pulled the door, so I jumped and fell into the basement. He broke down the door, fired his gun into the darkness and missed me.’

Nearby, outside a dilapidated post office, is Lyuba, deaf but outraged by the Russian occupiers’ mess with the new building.

She wears a bobby pin in her shirt, caught in a plastic ziplock bag on a safety pin. It belongs to a local priest, his lover, who was killed by a light bulb in June. “I attached it as a protective amulet,” said Lyuba.

Then, terrified, he asked: “Do you think they will come back? Tell me, can I get out of here now?”

Across the street is the local administration building, hit hard by a single rocket. However, the dark graffiti of the Russian occupation force remains on its walls.

“Forgive us,” read one comment. Another wall bears the phrase “Rostov is father, Odessa is mother” in red spray paint, reflecting the shared history and kinship many Russians share with Ukraine.

Dmytro, a Ukrainian soldier from the Kulchitskiy battalion who took part in the counteroffensive to liberate Sviatogirsk, said that they watched the Russians for a long time before attacking.

“You have to understand the psychology of coming to a foreign land,” he said. “His media and his commanding officer may tell him it’s a stupid idea, but when he gets here, he realizes he’s really in foreign territory.”

The locals are talking about the massacre in the village. It is difficult to find a single building that is intact, or that will have a chance of providing shelter in the coming winter. Even the second monastery of the town is scratched by shell fire.

However, in its cold, dark but orderly basement, dozens hid in the most bitter battles and a few still find shelter. The steps outside the church are strewn with the usual signs of family life from the shell-damaged cross and surrounding dome: a doll and clothes in a clothesline, a pot simmering slowly on a stone stove.

Inside the basement is Lyudmila. Two days earlier, a sound that had comforted the woods here for centuries cried out: church bells.

“It called, and I heard it, and I heard it, and it got louder,” he said. He has spent seven months in this shelter under terrible uncertainty. At the beginning of the war, his disabled son was injured by a bomb, and now he does not know where he is.

Footage obtained by CNN shows Ukrainian forces controlling the Donetsk countryside around the disputed town of Lyman, which is still held by several pro-Russian militias.

“The last time I saw him he was alive,” he said, adding that he had been taken to hospital.

Another woman, Valeria, is sitting in the dark corner of the basement, which used to house eight people but now she is alone.

“My children have left, they have been evacuated and my apartment has been destroyed,” she said. “Is it possible to leave here now?”

Outside, the shelling continues as Ukraine seeks to shrink territory that Moscow will falsely claim in the coming days, territory whittled down by Russia’s war of choice.