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Ukraine’s border villages feel full force of Russian war machine as Putin moots possible ‘sanitary zone’

Sumy region, Ukraine CNN“Evacuation! Of civilians from the village of Luhivka.” Out of breath, police officer Dmytro Piddubnyi is recording the scene on his phone and providing a commentary. But he’s working, too, and the old lady in front is not moving fast enough.

“Grandma, come on! Come on, come on, come on, dear, come on!” There are two booms in the distance, most likely an artillery piece firing.

Luhivka, in Ukraine’s northeastern Sumy region, lies just a few miles from the border with Russia. In common with dozens of small towns and villages along the frontier, it has seen a significant increase in attacks in the last couple of weeks, bringing the anguish of war and its impossible choices right back to the people living there.

The old woman, a walking stick in her right hand, picks up her pace for a few steps, then slows again. She mutters something inaudible, a plea perhaps to the young policeman to show some understanding of her age. She’s doing her best.

Piddubnyi swings his phone around to show the damage to the bridge they’re crossing. It was hit by a Russian missile, but a narrow strip of concrete remains intact, which allows them to cross the river, and make their way to the vehicles that will drive them to a safer place.

In the opposite direction, on the other side of the border, Ukraine’s military has stepped up its attempts to “bring the war” to Russia, coordinating with Russian volunteers fighting for Ukraine as they carry out commando-style raids on villages in the Belgorod and Kursk regions, as well as increasing its own artillery and drone strikes.

Vladimir Putin, following his unsurprising victory in a widely discredited presidential election earlier this month, raised the prospect for only the second time about the possibility of creating a “sanitary zone” inside Ukraine to protect Russia’s southwestern regions.

CNN spoke by phone with people living along the Ukrainian side of the border, or with relatives living there.

Olha Mykhailivna, 58, said her village of Ryzhivka had suddenly come under massive attack from Grad rockets on March 12 – and that it was worse than anything she had seen since the war first came to Sumy region more than two years ago.

“The shelling did not stop all day. They were firing from all kinds of weapons. We were hiding in the basements. We would jump out for a few minutes to feed our animals, and then go back inside. It was endless,” she said.

After three days of bombardment, Mykhailivna and her husband agreed to leave. As the car to collect them drew up, she said, there was an explosion on the other side of the street. In the chaos and the haste, they scooped up their dog but left behind the bags they had carefully packed.

They also left behind their cattle. So, they asked the two men helping them evacuate if they could let the animals out of the barn on their return to the village and put out food for them. Otherwise, tethered up, the cattle could starve.

“We have lived in Ryzhivka all our lives. Both my husband and I were born there. It is our home. We built the house ourselves. We wanted our children to have a place to visit. And then the bear got into the house. It’s very hard and scary to be left without a home at my age,” she said.

The bear, of course, is Russia.

Iryna Mishchenko told us about her grandmother. After burying her middle-aged son in the yard in front of his home because there was no way to remove the body after he was killed in an artillery strike, the 75-year-old eventually left the village of Popivka on foot, walking across fields to get to the main road. There, she borrowed a phone from a stranger and called her granddaughter.

“We picked her up at the bus stop near the village of Yizdetske. Now Grandma is with us in Sumy (city), but she can’t really talk at the moment, she is in a bad way after what she has been through,” Mishchenko told CNN.

According to Sumy’s regional governor, Volodymyr Artiukh, up to 90% of Popivka’s buildings have been destroyed, making it among the worsthit settlements along the border. The frequency of attacks since the start of the year is two to three times higher than it was in 2023, Artiukh says, and the types of munitions being used are more destructive.

More than 100 guided aerial bombs – which generally carry a minimum weight of 500 kilograms (1,100 lbs) – are being dropped each week on Sumy region, the governor told Radio Liberty. These munitions, more than anything, are responsible for so much of the recent devastation.

“The Russian army is trying to burn our border villages to the ground,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said last week, referring also to an increase in raids by sabotage and reconnaissance groups sent across the border by Russia.

In truth, Ukraine has also been making much of the running when it comes to making these border regions an active combat zone. Coordinating with Kyiv’s Defense Intelligence Directorate, several volunteer legions of Russians fighting for Ukraine have stepped up their own assaults on Russia’s border villages in recent weeks.

One of the villages, Kozinka in Russia’s Belgorod region, is just a few miles away from Luhivka, with its destroyed bridge, and Popivka, where Mishchenko’s grandmother buried her son.

The pro-Kyiv Russian fighters have posted multiple videos on their Telegram channels purporting to show drone strikes on pro-Kremlin Russian soldiers in Kozinka. The footage shows widespread destruction in the village. Moscow’s top official in the region, governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, has acknowledged Kozinka and the surrounding areas are “very seriously damaged.”

In the regional center of Belgorod, a Russian city with a population of more than 300,000, which lies just 40 km (25 miles) from the border, a Reuters reporter said air raid sirens had become an almost daily occurrence. Ukraine has significantly ramped up artillery and drone attacks on the city, forcing authorities to close schools and shopping malls. Evacuations from communities on this side of the border have also been announced.

This is not the first time Kyiv has turned up the heat on the Belgorod region. Similar cross-border raids took place last May, in the weeks leading up to Ukraine’s ultimately failed counteroffensive, but did not provoke the escalation in reprisal strikes on the Sumy region seen this time.

The pretext for the latest attacks inside Russia was to slow down Moscow’s offensive plans in Ukraine, one of the pro-Kyiv Russian volunteer leaders said last week at a news conference. The aim was also to take the sheen off Putin’s stage-managed election win.

Even though Russia’s leader might seem impervious to small military setbacks, his comments last week following the announcement of his poll victory suggest a possible further intention to force Ukraine’s border areas into submission.

“I do not rule out… that we will be forced at some point, when we consider it appropriate, to create a certain ‘sanitary zone’ on today’s territories under the Kyiv regime,” he said.

Putin first floated the idea of a buffer zone last June, when he discussed the war’s progress with Russian military correspondents in a meeting at the Kremlin. Acknowledging the limitations of counter-battery fire in repressing incoming attacks, he said Russia might in the future need to control a border zone inside Ukraine which would put Russian territory outside the range of Ukrainian artillery.

Even discounting the Russian-occupied territories – and Belarus – Ukraine’s border with Russia runs for many hundreds of kilometers. Oleksiy Melnyk, a security analyst at Kyiv’s Razumkov Center, downplayed the viability of any such zone, telling CNN it would also need to reach 70 km (43 miles) inside Ukraine if it was going to rule out attacks by rocket artillery.

“For people who are not very well informed, it looks like a really good idea,” he said.

In fact, the floating of a possible buffer zone showed that Putin has no proposals on how to end the conflict, Melnyk said, other than to capture and disarm all of Ukraine.

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