Ukraine struggles to defend one of its last strongholds in the east

As the war in Ukraine grinds on its fourth month, the fight for the eastern Donbas continues. Relentless Russian shelling and Ukrainian counter-strikes have laid waste to vast swathes of the region. As William Brangham reports, the daily struggle for those still there, and their loved ones who have left, is immense.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the war in Ukraine grinds on for its fourth month, the fight for the Eastern Donbas continues.

    Relentless Russian shelling and Ukrainian counterstrikes have laid waste to vast swathes of the region.

    As William Brangham reports, the daily struggle for those who are still there and their loved ones who have left is immense.

  • William Brangham:

    In Ukraine's east, the brutal battle for the Donbas rages on. Along front-line trenches, Ukrainian soldiers hold their positions, trying to survive a war with no end in sight.

  • Ivan, Ukrainian Armed Services (through translator):

    What can I wish, patience, encouragement for everyone? Victory is ours, definitely.

  • William Brangham:

    The epicenter of the Russian bombing today, Severodonetsk. This small industrial city is now on fire. Three-plus months of shelling has reduced the city to ruins, and most of it is now in Russian hands.

  • Gov. Serhiy Haidai, Luhansk, Ukraine (through translator):

    Russia is deliberately targeting critical infrastructure, such as gas pipes. People have no gas, they don't have running water, and they have no access to electricity or proper treatment in the hospitals.

  • William Brangham:

    Serhiy Haidai is the regional governor of Luhansk. He spoke to us yesterday from an undisclosed location.

    He says Ukrainian troops are defending the city, but need more weapons.

  • Gov. Serhiy Haidai (through translator):

    Had the Ukrainian army had enough long-range artillery, it would have been possible to liberate the city in three or four days.

  • William Brangham:

    Last month, the U.S. promised to send artillery rocket systems known as HIMARS, but not with the longest-range rockets.

  • Gov. Serhiy Haidai (through translator):

    Russia is using its artillery to destroy everything. They're destroying the city house by house, where our defenders are located.

  • William Brangham:

    Severodonetsk is devastated and deserted of almost all its prewar population of over 100,000 people.

  • Aleksandra Gubar, Ukrainian Refugee (through translator):

    So, on February 24, at 4:00 in the morning, our city started to be bombed. There was no glass in any single window in my house. So, me and my children had to move to the basement.

  • William Brangham:

    Aleksandra Gubar and Nataliia Poplavska are sisters. They left the city a month after the war began and escaped to Poland. But the rest of their family stayed.

    They sent us these photos of their parents, to infirm to leave, their brother and Aleksandra's husband. They haven't heard from any of them in more than 10 days.

  • Nataliia Poplavska, Ukrainian Refugee (through translator):

    We would like them to know that their kids are safe, that we are safe and that we love them a lot.

  • William Brangham:

    Severodonetsk in Eastern Luhansk is one of the last pockets in the region still under Ukrainian rule. Capturing that city and its smaller twin, Lysychansk, would bring Moscow closer to claiming control of the entire Donbas.

    Further south, the city of Mariupol is also pulverized. What used to be a port city of 400,000 is now a city that belongs to the dead. Officials say those still living here are threatened by an outbreak of cholera.

    Petro Andryushchebko, Adviser to Mariupol Mayor (through translator): The city has been under lockdown for a week now. The word cholera is being used not just by us, but by the other side as well.

  • William Brangham:

    Another casualty of this war is Ukraine's huge agricultural exports. Kyiv accuses Russia of targeting infrastructure, including grain terminals like this one.

    And as the invasion continues to wreak havoc, President Putin just compared just compared himself to Russia's first emperor, Peter the Great, drawing parallels between his modern-day territorial ambitions and the 18th century czar's founding of Saint Petersburg on land seized from Sweden.

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    When Peter the Great founder of the new capital, Saint Petersburg, no European country recognized it as Russia. We will prevail in solving the issues we are facing.

  • William Brangham:

    Putin's so-called solution has caused a catastrophe that has left 20 million Ukrainians displaced and stranded, like Aleksandra and Nataliia, who don't know if they will ever return home.

  • Nataliia Poplavska (through translator):

    We cannot answer this question because we don't know if there's still a home to go back to and if our home is still standing.

  • William Brangham:

    Not anymore. They told us that, moments after we spoke with them, their home was bombed.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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