Thirteen miles from the Russian frontline lies Kramatorsk, a city at first glance eerily empty. The highway into the centre is deserted, with long, thin Ukrainian flags defiantly hanging above the street, held taut by wires.
If Russia’s revised goal is to seize Donbas, the last significant city Moscow’s forces will have to take is Kramatorsk, an industrial centre, that is 40 miles west of the fierce fighting at Sievierdonetsk.
Almost nobody walks through its vast central square – and those visiting the mayor’s office that overlooks it have to go round the back, past sandbags and guards, to the side away from the Russian artillery, whose 152mm guns are uncomfortably in range.
“Your first time in Kramatorsk? Empty, no people,” said the city’s mayor, Oleksandr Goncharenko, speaking almost apologetically in near fluent English, before revealing the situation is a little more complicated than it first appears.
“Unfortunately there are 60,000 remaining, out of a population of 210-215,000,” of whom the mayor estimated that 70% to 75% are “old people who will never leave their house, [except for] the case of huge bombing like it was in Mariupol, Rubizhne and Sievierodonetsk”.
Few linger on the streets and the mayor said he would prefer if more went, although, he added, their decision is not reflective of latent pro-Russian support. That, he argued, was largely extinguished in 2014 after Kramatorsk was occupied by Kremlin-backed separatists for nearly three months.
“Eight years ago the quantity [of pro Russians] was probably 35% to 40%. But everybody has seen what they did here. Now, no more than 3-4% would support Russian peace, as it is called. It’s typical situation in most cities in the east, south and central Ukraine,” Goncharenko said.
In reality, Kramatorsk is a city of contrasts. A total of 59 were killed in a Russian missile strike on the out-of-town railway station in early April – a terrible attack that local officials say could have been far worse because there were larger crowds massed nearby, a little deeper inside.
A school was bombed in the centre a few days before that, a gym basketball hoop still visible amid a collapsed facade, tumbling into a large crater. But otherwise damage in the heart of Kramatorsk is limited, key buildings untouched.
The war, though nearby, has not yet wholly arrived inside the city, which explains why so many are willing to remain. There is only an occasional sound of shelling when the Guardian visited and, with one critical exception, utility services are functioning relatively normally.
Electricity supply and phone connections are working (there is free town wifi) as is water, with some of the small villages around the town reconnected a few days earlier. Thirty per cent of the shops are open, the mayor says, including a well-stocked supermarket housing the town’s only indoor cafe, and cash machines operate.
However, the key problem is that Kramatorsk has no gas supply. “Without gas it will not be possible to give the people the proper type of heating. It is the most dangerous question for us,” the mayor said, adding starkly: “In the winter, it will be very difficult to live in a city like this.”
Nor is there any viable alternative: converting to heating by electricity would require recabling 954 apartment blocks and years of work. “One city, Nikopol, has already this experience in the past. They needed three years to change the heating of houses. And we have only four months,” Goncharenko said.
Kramatorsk has already suffered $25m (£20m) in war damage so far, he estimates, but the city’s annual budget is $50m, “of which it’s possible to pay $5m for repairs”. Tax revenues, 50% to 60% of which come from two now-closed industrial plants, are falling. “In reality, without the west helping it will never be possible to repair all the damage.”
Meanwhile, the Russian forces continue to advance, although “they are moving very slowly, 1km in one week or 2km”. The mayor is under no illusions about what this could mean. “They do not occupy the cities and villages, they destroy them. They do not think about the possible future,” he said.
“It’s a must for us to fight. The minimum target for us is to stop them wherever they are now,” the mayor continued. Ultimately he and his team would have to flee the invaders, should the Russians come too close. “You understand what will happen in the next day? They will catch us …”
So what does he think of Russia now? Goncharenko, a former sales director, said he had lots of Russian contacts before the war started, but has removed them all from his mobile phone. “No more school friends. No more friends. No more business partners. I deleted all these, two and a half thousand.”
The mayor said that he had texted each of them with an accusation. “I told them that they are personally guilty for the war. Yes, it was started by Putin, but who is responsible for the war? The population of Russia” – even, he said, criticising those who had told him in private they didn’t agree with the war, because they were not prepared to dare stand up to the Kremlin in public.
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( Information from theguardian.com was used in this report. To Read More, click here )