SCHASTYA, Ukraine – A drunk person sits on a bench, swaying. A few elderly women, hunched over against the strong wind, rushed out of the grocery store, plastic bags in their arms. On the other hand, the streets of Shchastya were deserted, while the sound of mortars and artillery resounded throughout the town.
Shchastya means “Happiness” in Ukrainian, but these days the town is one of the saddest places on earth, and it could have been a lot worse.
With a large Russian-speaking and pro-Russian population, its proximity to the front lines in eastern Ukraine, and the presence of a strategic power plant, it is particularly vulnerable to lurking separatists. on the far bank of the river that flows through the city.
That has led Ukrainian military analysts and officials to suggest that Shchastya could emerge as a starting point for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, one that has its roots in breakaway regions that Moscow recognized as independent states on Monday.
The mayor, Oleksandr Bunets, stood outside town hall on Wednesday, smoking a cigarette and surveying the devastation. A day earlier, Shchastya had come under the heaviest shelling in the area and fighting continued on Wednesday between the government and Russian-backed separatist fighters.
“They will try to take the town,” said Mr. Bunets, who was appointed to the current civilian-military manager position because the townspeople have relentlessly elected Russian sympathizers as mayors. “They tried yesterday and they tried the day before.”
In a report released by the Interior Ministry of Ukraine on Wednesday night, it listed attacks on government-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, Shchastya and surrounding areas as targeted locations. most target. The report listed 917 cases of munitions from tanks, artillery, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms.
Stanytsa Luhanska, about half an hour’s drive east, was the second most active site, the report said, with 220 fire cases. Most of the fires in Shchastya appear to be hitting army positions just outside the town.
On Tuesday, artillery attacks began to burn the power plant, the town’s largest employer; The company said employees evacuated to a bomb shelter while it burned. The fire was eventually extinguished, but the water pipes were damaged and residents now draw water from the well in plastic containers.
This is a particularly flashy time for the town, but the name Happiness, has been around for years now.
Two-story brick apartment buildings, bleak and dilapidated, sloping down a hill of sand and pines down to the Seversky Donets River, with the demise of the coal-fired power plant on one side and the buildings on the other. secessionist military intelligence. The streets are filled with potholes, and many apartment blocks are partially abandoned, reflecting migration after the war began that cut the population by about half, to 7,000 today.
Mayor status as a military appointee – Mr Bunets holds the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Ukrainian Army, but is now serving in a civilian capacity – captures the complexities in many towns Mining and frontline agriculture in eastern Ukraine. It also helps explain why they are considered ripe for taking the first step into Ukraine by the Russian military.
Pro-Russian sentiment is deep, paradoxically, even as these locations have borne the brunt of the conflict for the past eight years and will suffer any new military action now. Pro-Russian sentiment has declined over the years, partly due to the efforts of countless Ukrainian NGOs. But they never disappeared, and many have family ties to Russia.
The former mayor of Shchastya, for example, has switched sides and now lives in the Luhansk People’s Republic, across the river. By contrast, Mr. Bunets, from the town of Mukachevo, in western Ukraine, and his employees made the point of speaking only in Ukrainian with Russian-speaking locals, to the dismay of some.
And they continued to speak on Wednesday, speaking in Ukrainian to confused residents who arrived at town hall complaining of broken water pipes and no electricity in homes, as explosions erupted from afar.
“The language of the Ukrainian government is Ukrainian, and government agencies must speak Ukrainian,” he said. In emergencies, he said, he would speak Russian. “Right now, people are complaining that there is no water. We cannot provide water right now. Repair work is underway when it is quiet.”
With most of the shelling targeting factories and government military facilities, no civilians were injured as of midday Wednesday, Mr. Bunets said.
He denied there was any strong pro-Russian feeling in the town and said that people certainly don’t want to live in one of the states that are now recognized by Russia. “Honestly, people want to live in a normal, civilized country,” he said. “There are so many positive benefits to civilization.”
Understanding how the Ukraine crisis developed
However, it is not difficult to find people who express sympathetic views about Russia. Igor Rashupkina, 50, a driver for the power company, said he hoped the city would not fall, but held no ill will towards Russia anyway. His son, he said, worked in the oil industry in Siberia.
Because of the close Russian border, many families in Shchastya are divided between the two countries. “I was born here. This is my town. I won’t leave” no matter what, Mr. Rashupkina said.
Before it became a potential flashpoint for Europe’s biggest land war since 1945, Shchastya was not always the one, said Maryna Danyliuk, 65, a retired worker at the power plant. such a cruel place.
She moved here from the city of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains in Russia in 1987 to marry a Ukrainian man. “I loved this town back then,” she said. “It is very green and very comfortable, everything works. Now, it’s pale.”
However, since the war began in 2014, the town’s position near the front lines has been severely affected. “The city has changed: It has become evil, unfriendly,” said Danyliuk. “It never became the city I knew it to be. It feels like a snake just hanging around the corner.”
On Monday, when the barges exploded on the outskirts of town, she called her sister in Chelyabinsk. “” Can you hear that?” she said and shouted at her siblings. “’Did you hear this? These are your people shelling me now, your Russians are shooting at me now! ‘”
Ms. Danyliuk, who switched to speaking Ukrainian a few years ago even though she grew up in Russia, said that if the town looked like it was about to fall, she would run away.
“I will miss these sands and pine trees,” she said. “I will miss the pine forest behind my house, where I walk my dog, my garden and of course, my house.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/23/world/europe/ukraine-targeted-town.html The Potentially Grim Fate of a Ukrainian Town Called ‘Happiness’