SVIATOHIRSK, Ukraine — The Ukrainian army has achieved a series of military successes in recent weeks. But these gains have come with a sad twist: The land it has reclaimed is largely depopulated and in ruins.
In the pine forests and rolling hills where the battles are now being fought in Ukraine’s northeast and east, fuel trucks, tanks and pickups rumble along muddy roads to press the attack, passing wholly destroyed, abandoned towns and villages.
In Lyman, a strategically important regional hub reclaimed by the Ukrainian army Saturday, a day after Russia declared the region had been annexed, wind whistled over city blocks where every home has been obliterated into heaps of brick.
In nearby Sviatohirsk, a once-bustling town catering to tourists and pilgrims visiting a revered Orthodox monastery, the Roche Royal hotel was eerily empty, nearly every window blown out, its rooms and corridors littered with discarded wrappers for Russian rations and broken glass.
“We are liberating land, but without people on it,” Vitaly Zagoruyko, a private in the Ukrainian army, said in an interview as he guarded a dock for a motorboat soldiers used to cross the Siversky Donets River, beside a blown-up bridge.
Looking around at the destroyed town, he spoke of the Russian soldiers who had occupied it. “They come to us and say, ‘We are brother peoples.’ And I say, ‘We aren’t brothers now.’ Brothers don’t kill brothers.”
In two counteroffensives in the south and northeast, Ukraine’s military is taking back land at a fast clip. On Tuesday, officials said they had broken past Russian defenses in the southern Kherson region. The advances are both cheering Ukrainians and opening panoramas of some of the worst destruction seen in the war, after towns and villages were fought over twice — in the Russian invasion and Ukrainian counterattack.
In the eastern Donbas region, as much as 80% of the population fled west before the Russian invasion last winter, becoming internally displaced people in western Ukraine or refugees in Europe.
As Ukraine counterattacked last month, some of those who remained fled the fighting to the east, into Russia. Some “ran the other way, toward the enemy,” Zagoruyko said of former inhabitants of the ruined ghost town he now patrols.
Still, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine is seeking to limit the flight of Ukrainian citizens into Russia during the counteroffensive. In his nightly address Monday, he assured Ukrainians living in territory the country has reclaimed that they would be treated fairly by returning Ukrainian authorities.
The Russian army killed an unclear number of Ukrainian civilians in the fighting and extrajudicial executions during the occupation, further emptying out the areas Ukraine is now reclaiming.
Ukrainian authorities have yet to offer full estimates of the population loss in areas reclaimed in the offensives. But in one indication, the Ukrainian army liberated the city of Lyman, with about 5,000 residents remaining, according to local police, out of a prewar population of 22,000.