Crisis in Ukraine

As the Key Battle Looms, a Report from Ukraine’s Front Lines

We make our way through bucolic countryside and the mortar shells to the besieged city of Donetsk, which once had a million people, and is now a ghost town.

© Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

DONETSK, Ukraine — There is always something unsettling about being in a car heading in a direction everyone else is fleeing, but at least this afternoon there was the heartening sight of luminous fields full of sunflowers to raise our spirits as we tried to find a way into the encircled, besieged city of Donetsk.

“If you want to go ahead, that’s up to you,” a sunburned Ukrainian government soldier manning a checkpoint told us with a roguish smile that suggested he’d be amused watching what happened.

We were standing on the H15 road in the Petrovs’kyi district on the western, rural edge of the city. Several Soviet-era BMD-1 armored vehicles were dug in and a T-84 tank was maneuvering in a field. As if the soldier had arranged it, there was the plop of a mortar shell being fired followed seconds later by a thud as we all scuttled for cover.

Dusted down, another soldier held up his right hand to indicate that was the fifth mortar round to have been unleashed nearby in the past half an hour. We weren’t getting in that way apparently.

We had had no luck either 30 miles or so further north at Pervomais’ke, where militiamen with the Dnipro volunteer battalion refused to allow us to travel any further towards Donetsk because of fighting in the village of Pisky, which has seen regular clashes since mid-July.

“Aren’t you worried about rebels taking you hostage?” a bearded soldier asked as he searched our car. When we were unable to reach his commander further down the road on a cellphone—the unit had no radio communications—we moved on.

As we pirouetted around Donetsk testing access routes while avoiding firefights or mortar volleys at times we had to pinch ourselves, passing through hardscrabble villages and rural scenes that could have walked straight out of a pastoral canvas by the 19th-century poet and artist Taras Shevchenko, if it weren’t for the electric pylons and battered parked cars.

Chained cows and goats munched at roadside grass; lovers walked hand-in-hand and children ignored the 93-degree (34 Celsius) heat to lark around. They stared as we bounced along outrageously potholed roads. Women worked on their front yards full of the riotous colors of wildflowers. On busier roads, elderly, scarved women sat by piles of potatoes and onions hoping forlornly for a sale.

War seemed far away in many villages on the west of the city.

But abruptly it intruded around corners when least expected after scenes of rural somnolence had lulled us.

In the small village of Karlivka (population 414 people) that sits on the southern side of the Karlivske Reservoir signs of recent battle were everywhere with all the main buildings—including two stores and a bar—wrecked or gutted. Several small, one-story homes were pockmarked with deep gouges from ricochets and direct gunfire. The only people in the village were electricity workers trying to repair downed power lines.

Abandoned separatist checkpoints dotted our way—an indication both of how far west from Donetsk the insurgents had gone and how much ground the Ukrainian security forces have managed to make up.

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Later, off the beaten track, we had to steer gingerly over what remained of a collapsed bridge, hoping what was left of it would hold us.

Once on the main highway from Mariupol, where most of the Kiev-loyal regional administration has fled, all suddenly was easy sailing. Separatists manning two checkpoints were briskly friendly. But the surreal kicked in again once inside Donetsk, a city with a pre-insurgency population of a million that now is a ghost town.

Few cars brave the streets: rush hour has become snooze hour. Separatist gunmen have been commandeering cars, some scribbling notes to say the vehicle will be returned after they have achieved victory. Bus stops—public transportation is still running with some re-routing underway—boasts a handful of people but no commuters. Restaurants, stores, and most banks are closed. There are no signs of any police—why would the traffic cops bother, there is no one to fine and demand bribes from? But municipal workers are still to be seen tending flowerbeds.

Minutes after we entered the mostly deserted city center gunmen in a car pulled up to us and ordered us to stop. They spotted our Kiev tags and demanded documents and explanations, before letting us go.

People don’t loiter in the downtown area—they walk briskly. The atmosphere of this encircled city is tense with residents ready for Kiev’s long-promised final assault to be unleashed. As night descends mortar or artillery fire episodically punches the air.

When the final assault actually will be launched remains unclear. In recent weeks, Ukrainian security officials say they have reclaimed three-quarters of the territory separatists in Donetsk oblast seized and they have expelled insurgents from the key towns of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, once the headquarters of Igor Strelkov, a Muscovite whose real name is Igor Girkin and who Ukrainian security officials insist is a Russian GRU military intelligence officer.

With Donetsk now encircled, the stage is set for a final and potentially very bloody urban showdown. Ukrainian officials have urged civilians to evacuate. “We’re asking civilians to leave the cities where possible,” spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev this week. “We’re pushing ahead and aren’t stopping,” he said.

But they have. Warnings of an imminent final assault on the few thousand separatist fighters holed up in both Donetsk and Luhansk have been issued before but the Ukrainian military has held off. Sources on the Ukrainian National Defense Council say there is a lively debate within the government about whether a large-scale assault should be mounted soon or whether a more piecemeal strategy should be pursued to avoid high casualties and property damage.

Those who favor caution are worried, too, about the reaction of Russia and whether President Vladimir Putin will move to intervene. Moscow appears to be laying the rhetorical framework for such an intervention with its proposed aid mission.

For now the city waits.