The Gruesome Battle of Donetsk

Russian artillery is pounding villages like Pryshyb in Donetsk, which Putin seeks to control

The Gruesome Battle of Donetsk
A soldier with Pryshyb’s territorial defense unit sights Ukrainian artillery fire as Russian forces shell Lyman in the distance / Neil Hauer / New Lines

It’s not often that a place like Pryshyb finds itself at the center of the action.

A sleepy village nestled along the Seversky Donets River, its few hundred inhabitants engage mostly in subsistence agriculture. At least, they did. Most have fled now, going deeper into Ukraine because of what lies on the other side of that river — the Russian army, grinding its way forward on one of the key axes of its offensive to capture the entire Donbas region.

On a sunny day in late May, the local territorial defense unit in Pryshyb was conducting its typical duties — patrol, lookouts, conversing with the remaining inhabitants. Most of the combatants looked the part of a typical eastern Ukrainian volunteer fighter. Except Hussein.

With his olive skin and wispy black mustache, Hussein stands out from his comrades. “You’re not the first people to be surprised to find me here,” he laughs. “I’m not exactly your typical Ukrainian.”

Hussein’s father is Lebanese, having moved to Soviet Ukraine in 1978 to study. There he fell in love with and married a local Ukrainian woman. Hussein was born in 1982, in the Donbas town of Kostyantynivka.

Now, he has found himself in the middle of the most devastating war in Europe since World War II — far more destructive than the Lebanese civil war his father fled in the late 1970s.

Hussein himself was in Lebanon when the war broke out, taking care of an ill family member there. He came back to take up arms, joining the territorial defense in his native Donbas.

“We’re all volunteers, all civilians in this unit,” Hussein says. “Nobody forced us to fight. We just got some training, and we were ready to go.”

He has little intention of letting the rest of the Donbas, whether Pryshyb, Kostyantynivka or elsewhere, come under Russian control.

“I refuse all this Russian ‘peace,’ Russian ‘democracy,’” Hussein says. “You can see what it looks like all around you here. We will never forgive them for this.”

As he speaks, the battle across the river is raging.

On the day of New Lines’ visit, Russian forces were preparing to storm the town of Lyman, some six miles from Pryshyb, on the northern side of the Seversky Donets River. Having besieged the town of 20,000 for the past month, they were just hours away from an infantry assault to seize it.

The hill beside Pryshyb served as an ideal vantage point to watch the battle. From its peak, Russian rocket artillery barrages were visible in the near distance, pounding Lyman and its defenders every few minutes. One salvo resulted in particularly fierce explosions — the effect of Russia’s TOS-1 thermobaric rockets, which suck all the oxygen out of the impact area to produce a massive fireball.

Andriy, the commander of Pryshyb’s territorial defense unit, helps locate strikes by Ukraine’s own artillery operating nearby. Watching through binoculars, he calls in coordinates to a man using the callsign “Termite” on the other end of his walkie talkie.

“It’s quiet now,” Andriy says, a remarkable statement given the ferocity of the barrages erupting in the near distance. “This morning, it was crazy. There were four [Russian] jets and two helicopters hitting the town for hours.”

This particular hill has seen combat before: In 1943, it was the site of Nazi German defensive positions as they attempted to prevent the advancing Red Army from crossing this very same river, Andriy says.

Now, just the 28 men in Andriy’s unit hold this position. They have already had direct contact with the enemy.

“Four days ago, the Russians took Drobysheve,” Andriy says, describing a village just west of Lyman and opposite Pryshyb. “Two days ago, they tried to cross the river here. They didn’t manage — we beat them back.”

Moments later, another salvo erupts — a hail of Russian Grad rockets fired from another direction further north. Twenty seconds later, they crash into the village of Studenok, the northernmost Ukrainian outpost in this sector.

Andriy’s own artillery sighting work makes its mark just afterward. A battery of Ukrainian howitzers opens fire from an unseen location nearby, their shells whistling as they pass directly overhead.

That’s the signal to leave.

“Let’s go,” Andriy says. “Their answer is coming.”

In Lyman itself, the fight is not going well for the outgunned Ukrainian defenders.

Dima, a 25-year-old police officer and native of Lyman, is participating in the fight. He was in the nearby city of Sloviansk for a brief coffee break when New Lines spoke to him.

“Equipment. We don’t have enough equipment,” Dima says. “There are enough people to fight. We need more equipment. They have much more equipment than we do. Several times more. Their equipment is modern, too. What they show on TV, that all they have is old junk — yes, there is old junk as well, but it’s like background extras.”

He stresses that the Ukrainian defenders are completely outgunned, pounded daily by all varieties of Russia’s overwhelming firepower.

“Their aviation flies over us every day,” Dima says. “Tonight, we had five raids. If we had air defense, it wouldn’t be happening. We have it, but not enough. It’s from the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s too weak. We need modern air defense. We haven’t received any yet. And you also have to learn to use it first. It’s not like driving a car. Aviation is fierce. Their aviation is just destroying towns. We are holding it back, not allowing it to go near enough for an artillery strike. But their aviation … a missile can go 100 kilometers [60 miles] just like that — they’ve got plenty of those. And those that are long-range can go farther. In Lyman, they shell residential buildings, suburban neighborhoods. People suffer; people die,” he says, exhausted.

Russia’s localized numbers advantage is also clearly felt: A spokesperson for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy estimated the Russian advantage in areas of the Donbas is up to 7-to-1.

“They are advancing slowly but surely,” says Dima. “They are many, and they are advancing. Our military destroys a lot of them as well, but it doesn’t stop them. They continue advancing. If we destroy some number of them, they send even more of them and continue advancing.”

Meanwhile, few of the Western weapons provided to Ukraine seem to have made it here, either caught up in logistical issues plaguing the defense effort or distributed to other fronts.

“We have gotten reinforcements here, but it doesn’t mean much because there’s no equipment to work with,” Dima says. “Are we just supposed to send cannon fodder against tanks and grenade launchers? What’s the use? When did they give [the new Western weapons]? Just now? The guys still need to learn to use it. It’s not that golden, this Javelin. It’s not that amazing. Yes, it’s good, but you need to learn to use it. And when did they give it to us? When we asked, ‘Give it to us, give it to us, give it to us,’” he trails off.

Ukraine’s casualties in the Donbas have been massive. Zelenskyy himself said in a recent interview that 60 to 100 men are killed and 500 wounded every day. Another fighter active in Lyman who spoke to New Lines said that of his 60-person unit, only four were alive and uninjured.

After weeks of battling superior Russian forces without end, losing comrades left and right (and his own home), Dima feels abandoned by the Ukrainian leadership in Kyiv.

“They don’t understand [what is happening here],” Dima says. “When yesterday [2014] we had war here, Kyiv didn’t understand. And now Kyivans — not all of them, but the morons — say, ‘it’s your fault, you called them [here], you caused this.’ What about Kyiv? Who called them in Kyiv? Who in Sumy called them? Who in Chernihiv? Who in Kherson?” he says, visibly angry. Russian artillery salvos in the distance provide a backdrop to his rant.

A few days later, Lyman fell. Russian forces assumed full control over the town on May 28.

Russian troops have since moved forward, occupying the remaining territory on the northern side of the river. They are now less than 6 miles from Sloviansk — their next target on this front.

In Pryshyb, meanwhile, the handful of defenders try to keep up their spirits.

“Of course we’re worried. We’re human,” says Hussein, reflecting on the Russian advance. “But we believe in victory. We know what we’re fighting for, unlike them,” he says.

He reflects on his past life, a storied one that’s seen him work everywhere from Moscow to Libya to the United States. Hussein especially appreciates the time he spent in Texas.

“I miss tubing on the river, having a beer on a hot summer day,” he says. “I miss happy hour and grilling a nice steak. America was great to me,” Hussein says.

Having finally returned home, he’d like to have a quieter future.

“I’ve traveled a lot,” says Hussein. “I just want to settle down after this is all over. Buy a nice plot of land here, build a country house. I’d love to have a duck farm,” he says.

One wonders if he will get that chance.

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