In the town of Krasnohorivka, Ukraine, grim Soviet-era apartment buildings stand nearly but not quite empty, with only a few residents remaining.
Blocks on the southern edges of town are burned shells, windows shattered and awnings dangling in the winter breeze. Houses are largely shuttered; their tenants long gone. The central square is abandoned and eerie.
On Wednesday, a few civilians moved gingerly along icy pavements to a small store that seemed still to be open. A man cycled past with a load of firewood.
Then a Russian rocket propelled grenade burst in the ice-grey sky above — a reminder of the potent threat carried by the enemy.
While the world’s attention has been focused on the city of Bakhmut as the vortex of the conflict in Ukraine, fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces has been as relentless elsewhere.
Areas south and west of the city of Donetsk — particularly the towns of Krasnohorivka and Vuhledar — have seen combat for much of the war: a punishing mix of trench warfare and longer-range rocket fire as each side probes for weaknesses. Progress here for the Russians is vital if they are to realize President Vladimir Putin’s goal of winning all of the Donetsk region.
At the moment, they are going nowhere.
Just to the north of Krasnohorivka, an elaborate system of trenches marks Ukraine’s forward defensive positions. More than two meters deep in the dark brown earth, the trenches extend for hundreds of meters, and in some places are within half a kilometer of Russian positions.
In the distance, a huge snow-covered slag heap rises out of the mist, like a ski slope in the wrong place.
A Ukrainian commander, who gave his first name as Bogdan, describes the situation as “controlled but tense” — a euphemism favored by the Ukrainian military for “very active.”
“The enemy is always searching for weak spots, but they don’t find them because we have a very durable defense,” Bogdan says. “Any enemy attempts are cut down immediately.”
His unit says it likes to take the fight to the enemy rather than wait to attack, to try to sap the Russians’ morale. As they fired Wednesday, the men occasionally yelled to each other: “Best job in the world.”
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