SIVERSK, Ukraine – The eastern Ukrainian city of Siversk, for weeks the northernmost Ukrainian-held settlement in Donbas before the Russian-occupied territory began, was a military staging post for much of the spring and into the summer.
The gas station awning at its eastern edge provided shade for soldiers waiting to go to the front. A small shop, open for a few hours each day, served townspeople and troops alike.
To the east, the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk fell to the Russians in June and July. Weeks passed. Russian forces advanced. Siversk intermediate station soon became Siversk, the frontline town.
The Donbas region, with its mining towns and rolling fields, has been central to Moscow’s war aims since Russia’s defeat around Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, this spring. With Luhansk province under Russian control, analysts believed neighboring Donetsk province, with Siversk close to the border, would be next to fall.
But after the Ukrainian military’s sweeping victory in the northeast last week, in which dozens of villages were recaptured and more than a thousand square kilometers of territory were liberated, Siversk’s fate appears to be once again unclear.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian officials claimed that about five miles away, Russian troops had been routed from the village of Bilohorivka. But from Siversk, Ukraine’s victory was unclear. Black smoke hung on the horizon and gunfire echoed in the distance.
Some of the remaining residents had heard about Ukraine’s success in Bilohorivka through their smartphones, but others remained unconvinced and had no connection to the outside world.
“We have no TV, no connection, no electricity,” said Valeriy Volodymyrovch, head of a local municipality in Siversk. “How do we hear what’s going on over there?”
When there is internet in Siversk, it is a gift from their mayor, said residents of Siversk. Most mornings, they added, the mayor goes out to a cell tower somewhere in the city and fills up the generator.
Siversk, which had a population of 10,000 before the war, has a water-colored train station. Factories break up the huddled skyline like stranded shipwrecks.
The air is colder now. The leaves, which changed from green to brown, drift into bomb craters and the destroyed facades of homes. Three freshly dug graves, marked with homemade crosses, sit on the edge of a field.
Military vehicles dart from side street to side street. The artillery boom is constant. Drones buzz overhead.
Now the shop is closed, the windows broken. There are no more Ukrainian troops in the shadow of the gas station. They once leaned on their bags and laughed, almost certainly chatting about the battles ahead.
Natalia Yermak contributed reporting from Druzhkivka, Ukraine.