In this vacant and damaged village, news of Russia’s evacuation of occupied towns along the southern front cannot come soon enough.
Ukrainian-held Mala Tokmachka, just over a mile (2 kilometers) from Russian-held territory in the Zaporizhzhia region, has been left ghostly and battered by shelling, leaving the central square pockmarked, and the school’s facade torn off. Shrapnel is mixed in with fallen pine cones.
Raisa, a local woman passing some Ukrainian soldiers on her bicycle, said the explosions had picked up recently and she had heard small arms fire from the nearby highway. “There is no way out for us,” she said, of the remaining 200 civilians. “We have no water, gas or power for more than a year.”
Just 9 miles (15 km) down the road is Polohy, a town that Russian occupiers said Friday they would evacuate, a process which local sources said had got underway at the weekend, although some Russian soldiers apparently remain in place.
The town is a focus for Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive. While Kyiv has said it will not announce its commencement so as to cause maximum surprise, recent statements from Russian officials in occupied areas about attacks have indicated at least its opening stages are likely underway.
Polohy is one of over a dozen frontline settlements that occupying forces announced Friday would be emptied of civilians. A Russian occupation official, Yuri Balitsky, said “we cannot risk the safety of people and will provide funds for organized travel, lump sum payments, accommodation and meals.” He added children would undergo rehabilitation and rest in children’s camps,” echoing the language of previous incidents that Ukraine has dubbed forced deportation and on which the International Criminal Court based a war crimes indictment against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ukrainian officials have said the evacuations are being used to provide cover for the departure of Russian troops, and claimed civilians are being sent to the coastal town of Berdyansk, and Russian soldiers to the heavily destroyed city of Mariupol.
It is as yet unclear what impact these evacuations – which on Sunday Russian occupation officials said amounted to 1,600 people – will have on Moscow’s ability to hold frontline towns. But it is a sign of possible weakness, and in during past Ukrainian offensives, Russian positions have collapsed very suddenly, even as their spokespeople were articulating their avowed defense. At the best, these mass departures are recognition by Russian forces that the fight ahead of them will likely be intense.
The evacuees are also being moved all the way to the coastline – a reflection of the terrain to be fought over. Russia, according to satellite imagery, has built a substantial line of defenses along its southern front in the Zaporizhzhia region.
Below this line of trenches and concrete, there are reports of some ongoing defenses, but not of a depth that would suggest Russia can easily afford to lose this initial frontline. Once Ukraine’s well-prepared offensive has pushed past this first boundary, there is a risk for Moscow that Kyiv’s move to the coast is a lot easier. That could be disastrous for the Russian occupation and Putin’s strategic hold of the land corridor that runs through Zaporizhzhia and connects the Crimean peninsula to the rest of occupied Ukraine and the Russian mainland.
In the Ukrainian-held city of Orikihv, one of the last major population centers before this frontline, the prospect of Russian forces being pushed decisively back cannot come fast enough. A constant artillery duel busies the horizon, together with intermittent mushroom clouds from enormous, often inaccurate Russian airstrikes.
Four hit on Thursday, destroying two civilian houses but apparently missing any construction that could be presumed to be a target. On Sunday morning, a CNN crew witnessed a jet flying overhead that dropped two missiles – one a $500,000 Kh31-P according to Ukrainian officials – which slammed into the town, 700 yards away. The missile appeared to have missed any potential target, causing a 10-foot-deep crater in an empty patch of land in the city center.
Orikhiv is persistently battered by Russia’s rage as Ukrainian military pressure increases. The town’s rescue team said there is no longer any pattern to the shelling, which seems to strike at random times and locations. Dmytro Haydar, a rescuer, described the delicate balance his team must find between responding to strikes quickly and being caught in the regular “double-tap” follow-up attacks that Russian jets often launch to hit first-responders and survivors. “We saw them, as they leave a trail in the sky,” he said of one jet attack. “We had to stand near the basement because they launched guided bombs. There’s no particular time of day or place for the strikes.” Haydar gestured towards the recent sound of outgoing artillery fire and said: “That’s not necessarily Ukrainian. It could be from the Russian-held town of] Nesterianka. The frontline is 3 kilometers away, and then it’s them.”
The team’s chief, Andrew Grygorenko, said he was trapped at the start of the war in Russian-occupied Polohy, where he lived and worked as a rescuer. The Russians forced him and his men to continue their work. Grygorenko says his men one-by-one managed to escape. He evaded their tight scrutiny of his whereabouts when a local occupation official failed to turn up to work one day, and he drove a minibus of civilians out.
The regular effective targeting of Russian positions by Ukrainian firepower sparked a manhunt in the town for an informant. “They were searching for spotters, and those disloyal to the new power”, he said. “There are many missing people and many dead. We don’t know even the full picture. After liberation of our town, we will find many more there.”
CNN’s Olga Voitovych in Kyiv contributed to this report.