As Russia escalates attacks, what a new phase of war means for Ukrainians in the east
Civilians in eastern Ukraine are stocking up on supplies, preparing exit plans and calling out to the world for assistance as Russia launches new assaults.
Elina Miliushnikova watched her 7-month-old son sleep in his crib late Tuesday night in her darkened Kharkiv apartment, hours after Russian rockets blasted the district where her parents live.
"Today we are really sad and depressed," Miliushnikova, 31, told USA TODAY via WhatsApp before feeding her son and retreating to the building's basement for the night. "All day we hear the sound of rockets."
Nearly two months into the war, Russian forces are escalating attacks on eastern Ukraine in what officials from both nations say marks a new phase of the invasion. Civilians concerned about the renewed assaults this week are stocking up on supplies, preparing exit plans and calling out to the world for assistance.
In northeastern Ukraine, at least four people were killed and three others wounded Tuesday in the strike on a residential area of Kharkiv, the Associated Press reported.
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Miliushnikova said her parents left that neighborhood a week ago, following Russian shelling nearby, and moved in with her in a different district in Kharkiv. Now she, her husband, parents, grandfather, son and cat spend their days in a one-bedroom apartment, where they monitor the TV and cling to the evening ritual of family dinner – usually borscht, sausage, potatoes and bread.
Her son, Ivan, was born months before the Russian invasion and is named after her grandfather, who grew up amid World War II.
"I could never imagine. My grandfather is child of war and my son, too," Miliushnikova said.
Miliushnikova said she and her husband began preparing for this new phase of the war weeks ago. They gathered canned foods, medicine and first aid supplies. They purchased gas masks and packed clothes. They enjoyed precious last walks outside.
In recent days, they've started staying indoors and sleeping in a bunker, as they did during the first three weeks of the invasion. Miliushnikova's son is recovering from a virus he picked up in the basement during that time, she said.
"Aerial bombs are my own fear because you don’t know what to do – this sound of planes and you don’t know where they'll blast," she said.
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Further east, Russia is mounting increased attacks in the Donbas region. The Pentagon believes the attacks to be a prelude to a major offensive in the area, a senior U.S. Defense Department official said Tuesday.
In the Luhansk region of the Donbas, Russian forces took control of the city of Kreminna earlier this week, regional military administrator Serhiy Haidai said Tuesday.
"There have been more massive shelling, and many times stronger aircraft launch strikes on our towns, along the entire line of defense," Haidai said in a report by state news agency Ukriniform. "Indeed, it can be stated that the offensive we have been talking about and waiting for a long time has begun."
In the neighboring Donetsk region, Russian forces are attempting to attack from the north, regional military administrator Pavlo Kirilenko said Tuesday. In Kramatorsk, an explosion killed at least one person and wounded three, according to AP journalists at the scene.
"We are being attacked more frequently," Anton Maliuskyi, a native of Kramatorsk, told USA TODAY in Russian late Tuesday via WhatsApp. "The neighborhoods are being shelled every day."
Maliuskyi, 40, said he was helping to coordinate the evacuation of civilians at a train station in Kramatorsk earlier this month when a rocket strike targeting the station killed at least 50 people and injured dozens.
"We were by the exit when we heard an extremely loud bang. It was so strong that the shock wave hit the people and they dropped down on the ground," he said, adding, "Once everything was over, I could see this horrible picture in front of me."
Sirens and explosions sounded off in the city Wednesday, said Maliuskyi, the head of the city's traffic safety department.
"It is very sad and difficult here," he said. "What will happen next directly depends on outside help."
The attacks have destroyed and caused leaks to gas lines in the region, said Vadim Batiy, 46, who works for an oil and gas company in Donetsk that has been helping to repair the damage. He spoke to USA TODAY in Ukrainian Wednesday.
"After (a) shelling, we receive a lot of calls about damages ... People need to cook food," said Batiy, who has been sleeping in the basement of his office.
Employees are also helping Ukrainian troops clear rubble, dig trenches and install road blocks, Batiy said.
"We stay in Kramatorsk and work non-stop," he said. "We cannot leave people."
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In Mariupol, the besieged port city in southeastern Ukraine, Russian forces continue to bomb the steel mill where Ukrainian troops and civilians have been sheltering, Mariupol City Council said. On Wednesday, Russia issued a new ultimatum to Ukrainian troops in the mill to lay down their arms, but the deadline passed without a mass surrender.
The city is a "hell on earth," Major Serhiy Volyna, whose forces have been holding out in the plant, said in a letter to the pope Monday.
Mariupol native Yana Kononenko said she fears for her friends and grandparents, both in their 70s, who are still trapped in the city.
"There is no connection with them. We don't even know if they live at all," Kononenko said late Tuesday.
Kononenko, 25, said she fled the city March 20 with her mother. She spoke with USA TODAY via WhatsApp from her aunt and uncle's one-bedroom apartment in Odessa, where sirens go off throughout the day.
"I don't have a home anymore, no work, no city," she said. "To be honest, there is no strength to do anything at all. I just cry every day."
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Kononenko said she has been reflecting on memories of her grandparents and her city – her favorite park, Mariupol's summer music festival and the Christmas plays at Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre, now destroyed.
Before the war, Kononenko said she visited her grandparents every weekend to roast kebabs over the fire and talk. "In spring they always planted a vegetable garden," she said. "I just want to see them alive."
Kononenko said she and her mother plan to travel to Norway this week with their remaining belongings: backpacks, sweaters, jeans and passports.
"We don't know what's there. We're just leaving because we have nowhere to live in Ukraine," she said.
In Kharkiv, Miliushnikova hopes she can find a way to stay through the next Russian offensive.
"I am not ready to leave Ukraine, but the life of my little son is much more important," Miliushnikova said. "I am thinking about moving in Europe in case of total destruction."
Contributing: Anastasiia Riddle and Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY
Rapid Response Enterprise Reporter Grace Hauck reported from Chicago. Reach her on Twitter at @grace_hauck or via email at email@example.com.