The battlefields of eastern Ukraine are largely abandoned fields and streets.

Source: : 2022-07-06 10:43:14 : Andrew E. Kramer and Maria Varenikova

President Vladimir V. Putin’s military campaign to capture Ukraine’s mineral-rich Donbas region was justified as a quest to protect the area’s Russian-speaking people. But only a fraction of them have stuck around as the Russian Army sweeps in.

The old industrial heartland in eastern Ukraine has become a hollow prize as the two armies fight over largely abandoned fields and streets. Many of the area’s towns are ruined, its factories destroyed, its population depleted.

At least half of the pre-invasion population of 6.1 million people in the two provinces of the Donbas, Luhansk and Donetsk, have fled over the past months of fighting, Ukrainian officials and international aid groups say.

The flight by crowded train cars and desperate overnight drives has left behind ghost towns, and Ukraine’s government and occupying Russian forces facing the problem of millions without long-term homes.

As night sets in, just one or two windows light up along entire streets throughout the region. Storefronts are boarded up. Town squares are empty.

With Russia having captured all of Luhansk Province and preparing for a fuller assault on Donetsk, fighting is expected to intensify in places such as Bakhmut, a town of leafy streets and brick apartment buildings with a pre-invasion population of 100,000 people. Already, its streets are empty. Wind rustles the poplar trees. Stray dogs mill about. A few military vehicles zip to and fro.

Those who remain in the Donbas are typically caring for ailing family members, are too poor to move, stayed to protect property or because they support Russia’s advance toward their towns — a group known as the zhduny, or the waiting ones.

The signs suggest that many who fled won’t return to the Donbas. Beyond the war damage, the region’s coal mines had fading prospects even before the war.

Still, capturing the region would give Mr. Putin a symbolic victory in a mineral-rich region bordering Russia that has long been in his sights. It would also allow the Kremlin to seize on its narrative that it is protecting ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine — even if few are left.

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