The shattered lands in the shadow of Russia’s sham referendums

The shattered lands in the shadow of Russia’s sham referendums

The shattered lands in the shadow of Russia’s sham referendums
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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.

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 were implausible, gave 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 is 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 were 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 realized, 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, was illustrated by the fragments of her life left strewn around her apartment. She showed us a picture of her student daughter, who died of meningitis aged just 40.

Moscow’s control over the territory it has taken during its assault has never looked so shaky

Nick Paton Walsh

“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 wreaked 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, somewhere I knew well, having spent six months living there on and off some eight years ago at 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 toward annexation and its demonstrably absurd claim that this land is now actually Russian territory. Instead, these ravaged, ruined towns are testament to how the collision between this right and that wrong shreds the very thing both sides covet. If these referendums give Russia an excuse to escalate this unjust war, there is no telling what may be left of these lands when it finally ends.

Nick Paton Walsh is senior international correspondent at CNN. Twitter: @npwcnn

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