ORIKHIV, Ukraine – Squeezed between the Ukrainian and Russian front lines on an increasingly unstable battlefield in southeastern Ukraine, the small town of Orikhiv is constantly under fire, and Tamara Mikheenko, one of the few residents left, rarely leaves her cellar.
“All the time in the basements, at night, under fire,” said Mikheenko, 70, while another explosion knocked outside. “It’s very scary, like lightning, everything falls apart, the house falls apart.”
Mikheenko fought to communicate through the violent sob on Tuesday and asked world leaders, including the presidents of the United States, Russia and Ukraine, to do whatever was necessary to stop the savagery, even though Russian forces appeared to be preparing a major offensive. officials said could steamroll Orikhiv in the coming days.
“Let them agree to stop this madness,” she said.
The night before, an explosion had torn into the unoccupied house next door, violently hitting the dark basement in which Mrs. Mikheenko was hiding.
Orikhiv is located among a small constellation of tidy agricultural villages that stand in the way of Russian troops advancing from the south and east. Ukrainian officials believe that Russian forces are preparing to make great strides in an attempt to expand a stretch of territory they conquered in the opening days of the war.
Shelling along this front has intensified in recent days, and across the region, Ukrainian forces are digging new trenches and consolidating positions.
It is in and around these villages that are still home to goats, cows and chickens, but to fewer and fewer people, that the current, crucial phase of the war is being fought. After failing to occupy the capital Kyiv and facing yet impenetrable resistance along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has turned the remaining power of his army on the fertile plains east of Ukraine’s Dnipro River and a few important majors. cities.
Russian forces have already engulfed nearly 80 percent of the Donbas region, as well as a strip of land connecting Russian territory with the Crimean peninsula, which Mr Putin annexed in 2014. One by one, the cities south and east of Orikhiv have fallen into Russian hands.
Ukraine’s forces, primarily from the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, are now buried in the wooded spots around and between these villages and the vast fields of wheat and sunflowers cared for by their inhabitants. Soldiers from the brigade say they are preparing to halt the expected Russian offensive and even push the Russian lines back.
But should Orikhiv also fall, Russian forces will have an almost open road to the large industrial metropolis of Zaporizhzhia, almost 65 kilometers away. Zaporizhzhia’s pre-war population of about 750,000 has grown with the daily arrival of evacuees from nearby territory now occupied by Russian forces, including the battered port city of Mariupol.
Around Zaporizhzhia is a sense of impending danger to touch and feel. Air raid sirens now sound several times a day and the local military hospital is filled with troops coming in from the front lines with horrific injuries. On Tuesday, Russia’s military launched a rocket attack on targets inside the city, missing its nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe when fully operational, according to officials. The rockets hit a city supply and killed one person, though the local government did not provide further details.
Since the start of the war on February 24, rocket attacks have been rare in Zaporizhzhia. Not so in Orikhiv. The city is only three miles from the Russian lines, and the shelling takes place around the clock, and it becomes particularly intense in the evening. Several houses were hit overnight Tuesday, including that belonging to Mrs Mikheenko’s neighbor, Vitaliy Kononenko.
“This is what the Russian world has brought us,” said Mr. Kononenko as he inspected the large hole that had been punched through the front of his home. Inside, plastic ceiling panels had melted, and the fur of a large teddy bear sitting in the window of a children’s room was shattered.
The house, which Mr Kononenko said he had recently finished building, would have burned to the ground if Mrs Mikheenko’s son, Alexander, had not run off from the basement to put it out.
Russia-Ukraine war: key developments
Orikhiv’s mayor, Kostyantin Denisov, said the city has miraculously suffered no casualties despite the constant shelling. This is partly due to the decision to evacuate as many people as possible early. Today, only about 30 percent of the city’s pre-war population of 20,000 remains, he said.
Some of those who are still in town, like Mrs. Mikheenko, stay inside their basements, but not everyone does. On Tuesday, among the clusters of neat single-family houses, there was a single occupant fumbling around in a beautiful flowering front yard. The sound of shots, apparently target practice, sounded in the distance.
Mr. Denisov has remained in place and refuses to leave his office in the peach-colored town hall building. He is needed, he said, to help with the city’s defense. It is no easy task as the 251-year-old city once lay on a series of trade routes and has at least seven roads leading into it.
“Now we have to close these routes off from our uninvited guests,” he said. “That is our main task. We will not surrender. “
The cities that run horizontally along the southeastern Ukrainian front are like the touchstone that marks the course of the Russian advance. Polohy, about 25 miles east of Orikhiv, has already fallen to Russian forces.
To the northwest lies Komyshuvakha, which Russian forces came dangerously close to until about two weeks ago, when Ukrainian defenders pushed them back. On Tuesday, the biggest drama of the day was the escape of a black and white cow from Natalia Novitskaya’s farm.
But the ravages of war were still present. In front of Mrs. Novitskaya’s house is a crater large enough to swallow a small sedan. The blast from the bomb that struck on March 16 blew out windows and gave one of her sons a concussion, she said.
The locals also showed the remains of what appeared to be firearms raining down on their homes and fields in the early days of the fighting.
Despite the relative calm now, officials and residents of Komyshuvakha are preparing for the return of the Russians. On Tuesday, trenches dug fresh trenches along the sides of the road, and soldiers filled up with food at the local market.
“We do not know what they have in their heads, but we are consolidating,” said Yuriy Karapetyan, the mayor. “We are preparing for the worst and will resist the last.”