Soldiers returning from the Donbas frontlines are calling it ‘hell on earth’.
Putin’s forces have bombarded the east of Ukraine ever since Vladimir Putin refocused his attention on the mostly Russian-speaking region back in May.
The Russian President claims he wants to ‘liberate’ it after his failed attempts to capture Kyiv.
Many defenders on the ground have lived to tell of the horrors they witnessed but others have succumbed to extreme fatigue, both physical and mental, and are displaying symptoms of PTSD.
Lieutenant Volodymyr Nazarenko, second-in-command of the Ukrainian National Guard’s Svoboda Battalion, was with troops who retreated from Sievierodonetsk under orders from military leaders.
The month-long battle, dubbed the biggest on European soil since the Second World War, saw Russian tanks obliterate any potential defensive positions.
Mr Nazarenko said the city with a pre-war population of more than 100,000 has been turned into ‘a burnt-down desert’.
‘They shelled us every day. I do not want to lie about it,’ the 30-year-old said. ‘But these were barrages of ammunition at every building. The city was methodically levelled out.’
At the time, Sievierodonetsk was one of two major cities under Ukrainian control in the Luhansk province, where pro-Russia separatists declared an unrecognised republic eight years ago.
By the time the order to withdraw came on June 24, Ukrainians were surrounded on three sides.
‘If there was a hell on earth somewhere, it was in Sievierodonetsk,’ Artem Ruban, a soldier in Mr Nazarenko’s battalion, said from the comparative safety of Bakhmut, 40 miles to the south-west.
‘The inner strength of our boys allowed them to hold the city until the last moment.’
Some soldiers complained of chaotic organisation, desertions and mental health problems caused by the relentless shelling.
Others spoke of high morale, their comrades’ heroism, and a commitment to keep fighting. Admittedly, for many this was not a choice.
Mr Ruban added: ‘They were fighting until the end there. The task was to destroy the enemy, no matter what.’
His comments come just over a week after Ukrainian units were ordered to retreat from Sievierodonetsk.
On Sunday, Russian forces also occupied the last stronghold in the Luhansk province and stepped up rocket strikes on Donetsk.
But both Mr Nazarenko and Mr Ruban expressed confidence Ukraine’s military would take back all occupied territories, and insisted morale remains high.
Other soldiers, most with no combat experience before the invasion, shared more pessimistic accounts.
Oleksiy, a member of the Ukrainian army who started fighting against the Moscow-backed separatists in 2016, had just returned from the front with a heavy limp.
He said he was wounded on the battlefield in Zolote, a town the Russians have since occupied.
‘On the TV, they are showing beautiful pictures of the front lines, the solidarity, the army, but the reality is very different,’ he said, adding he does not think the delivery of more western weapons will change the course of the war.
Oleksiy claimed his battalion lost 150 men during its first three days of fighting, many from a loss of blood, and within a few weeks they started running out of ammunition.
He added: ‘The commanders don’t care if you are psychologically broken. If you have a working heart, if you have arms and legs, you have to go back in.’
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