Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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Seven months after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, this past fortnight has seen perhaps the most
significant developments in a story of unmitigated disaster. Two parallel threads have changed the
dynamic of the conflict.

Nick Paton Walsh, Ukraine

On the one hand, a surreal, choreographed and completely predictable piece of Soviet-style political reverse-engineering has been taking place in Moscow and across four partially Russian controlled regions of Ukraine. Sham referendums, cobbled together in haste, illegal by almost every accepted international measure, have faked a mandate for Russia’s claim to annexation.

The results, as emphatic as they are implausible, giving Moscow the chance to stage a formal rubber stamping of its claim over the territories, and perhaps to declare its so-called Special Military Operation a ‘success’. It will be the largest forcible annexation of land in Europe since 1945.

What that means for Russia’s military policy remains unclear, especially when you look at the other side
of the story: how the battlefield itself is changing. Russia’s control over the territory it has taken during
its assault has never looked so shaky. Recent weeks have seen a Ukrainian counteroffensive of such
ferocity that it has left Russia’s previously vaunted military completely exposed. Its troops have in some
areas literally dropped everything to run, leaving behind operational equipment including tanks and
troves of ammunition, which are now being used against them by Ukraine. All this, while tens of
thousands of Russian men of fighting age are desperately fleeing their own country to avoid a chaotic and
hugely unpopular conscription drive

Then of course there is the scene on the ground – the shattered land, towns, and people over which this
catastrophic conflict is being fought. This week I reported from the town of Toretsk, just a few miles from
where one of the bogus referendums was taking place. There, the terror of what has already come to
pass is matched by the fear of what may be yet to come.

One woman, Natalia, told me how her apartment building was torn apart by a Russian rocket, trapping 19
people on the upper floors. Incredibly, none was hurt. “I blinked twice and couldn’t see”, she said. “The
balcony door flew open, and trash blew in. I’m terrified of flames, and I realised, we’re on the seventh
floor and it’s collapsing’. Then someone screamed, ‘don’t come out as there’s no way’. It’s a miracle. I
can’t call it anything else.”

Rescuers were evacuating another woman, 73-year-old Nina, who had been living alone for six months
without running water. A rocket had also hit her building two days earlier. Miraculously she too was left
unscathed, and just sat in her tiny apartment, under the gaping hole it left above her. The last to leave
her block, the lonely agony of her struggle, and the dilemma over what little she could take with her,
perhaps never to see again, illustrated by the fragments of her life left strewn around her apartment. She
showed us a picture of her A-student daughter, who died of meningitis aged just 40.

“God let it finish fast before I die,” she told her rescuers, fighting back her tears. “It is painful to leave,
but it is also good,” she said. “I’ve never been so scared. I am strong, but I do not have the strength for
this.” She also had a message for the Russians who had wrought this wanton destruction upon her
town. “I don’t want to be rude or smart”, she said, “but I just want to ask, why did you come to us? Who
asked you? Or are we that silly that you wanted to liberate us?”

We drove south to the small monastery town of Sviatohirsk, a town I knew well, having spent six months
living there on and off some eight years ago during the start of the conflict. Surrounded by hills, pine trees
and fields of sunflowers, it was a place I came to appreciate for its sense of normality and peace. Now
though, the futility, misery and despair of this brutal war was on display all around us. The ferocity of the
fighting amid Ukraine’s rapid advance has left a devastating trail of destruction in its wake and is
constantly reducing the amount of occupied territory that Russia can falsely claim as its own.

Once again, as so often in conflict, it is the most fragile who are left behind. One of just nine people still
living in her block, Anna wore a thick grey coat with a yellow and orange scarf wrapped around her neck
and a face mask pulled below her chin. She brushed her grey hair from her forehead as she recounted the
scariest moment of the last few weeks. “The Russians were in a firefight in my courtyard,” she told us. “I
was in a doorway and tried to hold the steel door shut, but a soldier pulled at the door, so I jumped down
and fell in the basement. He tore into the door, shot his gun into the darkness, and missed me.”

Around us, shells still rocked the carcass of the town. Luba wore a lock of hair from her local beloved
priest, killed by shelling in June. She told me she had attached it to her coat as a protective amulet. She
surveyed the scene of Sviatohirsk’s wrecked post office. ‘The Russians made such a mess,’ she
remarked. She asked me if they would be coming back.

Another woman, Ludmila, was part of a group who had spent seven months hiding underground in a
church basement. Finally feeling safe enough to emerge, they were still too anxious to reveal their
faces. Ludmila recounted how her disabled son was injured in shelling and taken to hospital. He was alive
when she last saw him, but that is all she knows.

As Ukraine’s relentless advance continues, so too does Moscow’s drive towards annexation, and their
demonstrably absurd claim that this land is now actually Russian territory. Instead, these ravaged, ruined
towns are testament to the how the collision between this right and that wrong shreds the very thing
both sides covet. If this week’s referendums give Vladimir Putin an excuse to escalate his unjust war,
there is no telling what may be left of these lands when it finally ends.

By : Nick Paton Walsh
Nick is an Emmy award-winning Senior International correspondent for CNN International

Sourced by; Queenie Nair

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members