Ukrainian advance brings city of Sloviansk back to life

<span>Photograph: David Goldman/AP</span>
Photograph: David Goldman/AP

For the city of Sloviansk, the recapture of the strategic hub of Lyman about 12 miles away by Ukrainian forces has brought a new mood of optimism.

The Donbas city was once one of Russia’s main objectives along with neighbouring Kramatorsk.

On Sunday as a continuous stream of military traffic was visible leaving Sloviansk in the direction of Lyman, the impact of the fall of the strategic railway junction was already transforming Sloviansk, a place that for months has been ghost city.

Bus services, long suspended because of the danger of shelling and missiles, are operating again. Crowds bustled in the main market. Residents spoke of some who had fled to live in safer cities talking about returning.

The transformation, say residents, is most noticeable in the countryside beyond the city limits on the road towards Lyman, where the roadside woods are marked by minefield signs and shattered buildings.

A few miles outside the city Viktor Kuznetzov, 37, a guard at a lumber yard, was pushing his bicycle loaded with groceries he had been to fetch from the city.

This area, he explained, until last week was under regular Russian artillery fire from Lyman and neighbouring Yampil.

“We’ve been living in the basement. There’s forty of us sheltering in there. But it has got quieter in the last week since Izium fell, and now Lyman. Finally we hope we might survive this war.”

Walking along the same road towards her dacha near an abandoned lake resort, Tatiana Luganov, aged 60, was bringing food to her dogs.

“They’re not hitting us from Lyman any more,” she said, adding that the long walk from the city centre where she lives “is now not too bad” with the reduced threat of shelling.

“It’s been much quieter in the last few days. I’m optimistic. I believe …” she stops herself. “No, I know that we will win.”

Where the frontline was once situated further up this road, by Sunday it had been pushed far beyond Lyman where battles were being fought with the remnants of Russian forces who occupied Lyman and had been forced into a chaotic retreat towards neighbouring Kreminna, fleeing in a long convoy down the last road still open to them under heavy Ukrainian fire.

In disarray and struggling to regroup, those Russians were reported to be facing ambushes in the neighbouring Kreminna forest by Ukrainian forces

Speaking to the Guardian from Lyman, Col Serhii Cheravaty of the Ukrainian 24th Mechanised Infantry Brigade said that Ukrainian forces were still pursuing fleeing Russians where they could.

Describing the importance of Lyman he said: “First is its geographic significance. We have opened the gates to Luhansk and Sievierodonetsk. Second is the psychological aspect. The fall of Lyman has boosted both the morale among Ukrainian troops as well as local civilians, while on the other hand it broke the morale of Russian troops.

“Then there is the political significance. Putin proclaimed this area as Russian and we already have it back.”

Despite the rout of Russian forces, and Lyman’s fall, Sloviansk was not entirely quiet. During the Guardian’s visit on Sunday two shells whooshed in, exploding on the city’s outskirts and sending up a column of grey smoke.

But it was quiet enough, said residents, to have made a noticeable difference.

The central market was busy with shoppers, while small informal markets for vegetables and second-hand goods had popped up in several places.

At her kiosk selling shoes, Olha Mamukashavili, 54, was optimistic that the threat to Sloviansk was at last receding.

“It’s not completely quiet. You heard the bangs just now,” she said.

“But it is getting much busier since the Russians were pushed out of Kharkiv and now Lyman. People are starting to come back. We have water now and electricity and even public transport.”

The tide has turned in the frontline cities of the Donbas since the spring and summer.

Then the story was of a grinding Russian advance backed by massive artillery fire that encircled and swallowed up the towns and cities in this area to the east of a line running from Sloviansk to Kostiantynivka.

Now that tide is in reverse, with Russian forces in the east from Kharkiv down to Lyman either being scattered in retreat or – like Lyman – facing a devastating rapid encirclement and destruction.

The significance of the liberation of Lyman, and the continuing offensive, was underlined by Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region that neighbours Donetsk, who said control over Lyman could help Ukraine reclaim lost territory in his region, whose full capture Moscow announced in early July after weeks of grinding advances.

“The liberation of this city in the Donetsk region is one of the key factors for the further de-occupation of the Luhansk region,” Haidai wrote on the Telegram messaging app on Sunday.

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Only on the frontline beyond Kostiantynivka are Russian forces still trying to advance around the towns of Bakhmut and Soledar, failing to make headway even as the Lyman sector has collapsed.

And while the situation has improved in Sloviansk, 40 minutes’ drive away in Kostiantynivka the sound of Putin’s war is still starkly audible, the sound of booms echoing from Bakhmut in the distance.

Serhii Kirik, 54, a taxi driver, is waiting at a bus stop. “The Russians have been stopped in Bakhmut. I just wish now it would all end. My wife and children are in Dnipro but it’s so expensive. Some people have come back here but it’s because they have run out of money. But it is still pretty much empty which means there is no work for me.

“I really hope the next advance by our forces will push them back from here.”

Related: Ukraine declares full control of Lyman after Russian forces pull out

At the central bus station the sound of the distant fighting is clearer still with a dull thud sounding almost once a minute.

Nadia Andriivna, aged 70, seems unperturbed. “The only reason I am still here is that I am an optimist. We hope that we are winning now.”

The Guardian asked her about the fact that Russian forces were still trying to advance on Bakmhut. “It’s their problem if they are still trying to hang on there.

“Our challenge is to make them run away.”

In Lyman, Col Cheravaty agreed. “I can’t tell you what will happen next, but after the success in Lyman our general Oleksandr Sirsky [commander of Ukrainian ground forces] will be preparing his next steps.”