Ukrainian city under fire prepares for Russian onslaught

ORIKHOV, Ukraine. Sandwiched between the front lines of Ukraine and Russia on an increasingly explosive battlefield in southeastern Ukraine, the small town of Orekhov is constantly under fire, and Tamara Mikheenko, one of the few remaining residents, rarely leaves her basement.

On Tuesday, Mikheenko, 70, struggling to communicate despite loud sobs, pleaded with world leaders, including the presidents of the United States, Russia and Ukraine, to do whatever is necessary to stop the brutality, even as Russian forces seem to preparing a major operation. an offensive that officials say could bring down Orekhov in the coming days.

The night before, there had been an explosion in a vacant house next door, violently shaking the dark basement where Ms. Mikheenko had been hiding.

“All the time in basements, at night, under fire,” she said through her sobs as another explosion rumbled outside. “The blast wave hurt me on one side. It’s very scary, like lightning, everything is falling apart, the house is falling apart.”

Orekhov lies among a small constellation of neat farming villages, directly in the path of Russian troops advancing from the south and east. Ukrainian officials believe Russian forces are preparing for a major offensive in an attempt to expand the swath of southern Ukraine they seized in the early days of the war.

Shelling on this front has intensified in recent days, and across the region, Ukrainian forces are digging new trenches and fortifying positions.

It is in and around these villages, where goats, cows and chickens still live, but fewer and fewer people, that the current key phase of the war for eastern Ukraine is taking place. After failing to take the capital Kyiv and meeting as yet unstoppable resistance along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin directed the remaining might of his army to the fertile plains east of Ukraine’s Dnieper River and several key major cities.

Russian forces have already occupied nearly 80 percent of Donbass, as well as a strip of land connecting Russian territory to the Crimean peninsula, which Mr. Putin annexed in 2014. One by one the towns south and east of Orikhov fell into the hands of the Russians.

If Orekhov falls as well, Russian troops will have a practically open path to the large industrial metropolis of Zaporozhye, which is only 40 miles away. Zaporozhye’s pre-war population of about 750,000 grew with daily arrivals of evacuees from nearby areas now occupied by Russian forces, including the ruined port city of Mariupol. The city senses an impending danger. Air raid sirens now sound several times a day, and the local military hospital is filled with soldiers arriving from the front line with horrific injuries.

On Tuesday, the Russian military launched a missile attack on targets inside the city, narrowly missing its nuclear power plant. largest in Europe when it is fully operational, according to officials. The rockets hit a city utility, killing one person, but local authorities did not provide any details.

Since the beginning of the war on February 24, rocket attacks on Zaporozhye have been rare. Not so in Orekhov. The city is only three miles from the Russian positions, and shelling is carried out around the clock, especially intensively in the evenings. Several houses were damaged Tuesday night, including a house belonging to Ms. Mikheenko’s neighbor Vitaliy Kononenko.

“This is what the Russian world has brought us,” Mr. Kononenko said, looking at the large hole punched in the facade of his house. Inside, plastic ceiling panels melted and the fur of a large teddy bear sitting on the window of the children’s room was burned. Fortunately, it was the only victim.

The house, which Mr. Kononenko says he recently finished building, would have burned to the ground if Ms. Mikheenko’s son Alexander hadn’t rushed out of the basement to put it out.

The mayor of Orekhov, Konstantin Denisov, said that it was a miracle that the city was not damaged, despite the constant shelling. This is partly due to the initial decision to evacuate as many people as possible. Only about 30 percent of the city’s pre-war population of 20,000 remains today, he said.

Some of those still in the city, like Ms. Mikheenko, hide in their cellars, but not all. On Tuesday, among a group of neat single-family homes, there was a random resident bustling about in a beautiful flowering front garden.

Mr. Denisov remained where he was, refusing to leave his office in the peach-colored city hall. He was needed, he said, to help defend the city, which was no easy task. The 251-year-old city was once located on several trade routes, and at least seven roads lead to it.

“Now we have to close these routes from intruders,” he said. “This is our main task. We won’t give up.”