War in Ukraine

Toretsk Has Been a Ukrainian Stronghold for 10 Years. Now Russia Is Trying to Take It


Russian forces are advancing on Toretsk, and shaken residents are fleeing as relentless rockets and airstrikes rain on the city and its surrounding villages.

Volunteers from Universal Aid Ukraine are working to evacuate civilians and are pleading for locals to leave the city before they fall into Russian hands. “Yesterday was an absolute mess. There is already active fighting in New York (a village in Toretsk). The majority of people we had scheduled to evacuate on Monday were already in Russian areas by the morning.”

Toretsk has been a frontline city for almost ten years and one of the only places where the frontline hasn’t moved, even after the full-scale invasion in 2022 began. Since the night of June 18th, 2024, Russian forces have increased their intensity on what was once a thriving mining town. The severe escalation has stripped the city of all hopes for a brighter future. 

For what strategic purposes have Russian forces advanced on Toretsk, and how are civilians and volunteers working to save them coping with such an extreme escalation? We hear firsthand the situation on the ground from volunteers who speak to us while they’re on the move, saving the lives of locals.

The 24th Mechanized Brigade In Toretsk

At the beginning of June, our team visited the 24th Mechanized Brigade, founded in 1992. It has been positioned in Toretsk for almost one year. They had already begun to reinforce the city with the famous dragon’s teeth, 80-90 centimeter high concrete blocks made to stop armored vehicles. Toretsk was, until recently, one of the most stable sectors on the frontline, but since the Kharkiv offensive, they began to prepare for the worst, and their foresight came at the right time. 

“In the first place, we are on combat duty here and are preparing for possible offensive actions of the enemy. We are also building fortifications on the front edge and the second line of defense, strengthening and improving it. This is our main task” said Bogdan, the Infantry Unit Commander.

The 24th Mechanized is the oldest brigade in the Ukrainian army, and it is now defending the oldest frontline in this war. As our reporter drove through Toretsk, it was already lying in ruins. Its inhabitants lived for over a decade in that void, somewhere between war and peace, life and death. But now, just weeks later, death is moments away, and peace is absent.

What Strategic Purpose Does Advancing On Toretsk Have?

Russian forces are attempting to exploit how the recently renewed Kharkiv offensive has drawn Ukrainian forces from other areas of the frontline—particularly in the Donbas region—in an attempt to pursue critical gains. 

The city of Toretsk and the village of New York—the Donbas frontline's latest hotspots—have been victim to relentless artillery, air strikes, and glide bomb attacks. Glide bombs are an increasingly popular weapon in Russia's arsenal and have only recently been used en masse. 

Zelenskyy said that Russia had rained more than 800 powerful glide bombs on Ukraine during the last week of June alone. 

Yegor Terletskyi for United24 Media
Yegor Terletskyi for United24 Media

The KAB glide bombs, Russia’s ‘miracle weapon’, have satellite navigation and fold-out wings attached to old Soviet bombs. They're cheap but destructive, and Ukrainians have “practically no countermeasures” as they can be released outside of the range of Ukraine's air defenses, keeping their launchers at a safe distance. Russia can produce around 3,000 of these bombs a month, and while Ukraine can’t currently stop them from being fired, they can fire bombs back in return.

Russian air strikes are a key tactic in attempting to seize Ukrainian territory. The Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) said they were decisive in February’s capture of the once heavily fortified key eastern town of Avdiivka, south of Toretsk. 

Over the last month, Russia has made some small gains across the Donbas front, from the Ocheretyne area, south of Toretsk, and along the Avdiivka and Chasiv Yar directions. 

Today, it has been reported that Russian forces entered Druzhba, just 4km east of Toretsk. Yesterday, Russian forces broke through Yurivka, just south of New York and within the last two weeks, they have advanced on Pivdenne and Shumy according to Deep State Map.

In the last 24 hours, Russian forces have deployed additional battalions and assault companies to support ongoing offensive operations, mainly using small infantry groups and occasional mechanized assaults, mostly in the direction of Toretsk-Chasiv Yar.

Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets wrote that operational factors towards Toretsk "are directly related" to the Avdiivka direction. He says that they are trying to obstruct Ukrainian positions along the H-32 Pokrovsk-Kostyantynivka road, a major supply route for Ukraine. 

Toretsk gives Ukrainian forces the possibility of striking Russian positions in the rear, attacking them in the direction of Chasiv Yar and northeast of Avdiivka. Toretsk allows them to conduct routine fire against Russian positions, halting any advancements and gains Russia sets out to pursue in either direction.

Yegor Terletskyi for United24 Media
Yegor Terletskyi for United24 Media

The further Russia advances in both Chasiv Yar and Avdiivka directions without the control of Toretsk, the larger the area Ukrainians could efficiently counterattack from, leaving Russian forces more vulnerable.

Institute for the Study of War reported that Russia’s small gains “are in line with Putin's articulated theory of victory that they will be able to continue gradual creeping advances indefinitely, prevent Ukraine from conducting successful operationally significant counteroffensive operations, and win a war of attrition against Ukrainian forces.”

However ISW found that the ‘main Russian forces concentration in the Toretsk area is formed of lower-quality forces of the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) and Territorial Troops, which will likely struggle to properly execute attacks, especially as Ukraine receives additional military aid over the coming weeks and months.’

What Was Toretsk Like Before The War?

Toretsk was founded in 1806, and like many cities in eastern Ukraine, during the Soviet era, it had a different name—Dzerzhinsk. Toretsk was an industrial town with a close-knit community, home to four working mines, all of which have now been destroyed. 

“Many families had their own home with a garden where they would grow their own vegetables, spending time with friends and family and living a peaceful life, " recalls Matthias, a volunteer and former resident of Toretsk.

“It was my favorite Ukrainian town. My uncle, who sadly passed away a few weeks ago, used to always bring me something back from the market after collecting water on his bicycle. My dad used to work in the mines and would take me back there to visit his friends, eat in the canteen, and share stories. Thinking about it brings me to tears." 

Yegor Terletskyi for United24 Media
Yegor Terletskyi for United24 Media

Matthias' family left Toretsk during the winter of 2022 as no electricity, water, or work opportunities were left. Matthias now lives in Austria and feels devastatingly helpless as he watches what was once his family home be torn to the ground. 

“People in Toretsk just want to live their peaceful life, they are not seeking a fake “liberation '' all of those childhood memories of spending time together with family and friends will just be destroyed, like we saw in Bakhmut.”

Evacuating Civilians From Toretsk

Today in Toretsk, Russian forces struck a police evacuation vehicle in which two paramedics were injured, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported on Facebook. Tthey remind residents that evacuation efforts continue.

“It’s scary to raise your head; hell is everywhere,”  Bogdan, a volunteer working to evacuate civilians, told us. “Yesterday, as I was evacuating a family, they said that about 200 shells were flying in their area a day. While I was in the city for 20 minutes, I counted approximately an explosion almost every minute.”

“‘Locals are shocked by the situation, everyone is desperately trying to evacuate and save themselves.”  Bogdan and his team receive between 50 to 100 evacuation requests per day but don’t have the physical capability to evacuate them all. 

He compares the shelling in Toretsk to Avdiivka and Bakhmut and says that he hasn’t seen people scramble for evacuation like this since the full-scale invasion began in 2022. “Every day is a test; thank god we’re still alive and can get people out.” 

Yegor Terletskyi for United24 Media
Yegor Terletskyi for United24 Media

Some residents refuse evacuation and are at peace with what their future holds. “‘One woman told us she wants to die today as she’s already too old and could never start a new life somewhere she’s never been.”  Anna of Universal Aid Ukraine (UAU) told us.

“‘There was an old lady who needed three attempts to be evacuated on three different days. The first day, we were screaming at her about how serious the situation was for almost an hour, and then we came back with Starlink so that she could talk to her daughter, who initially called us. That worked, and we picked her up the next day—it was a success.”

Anna says that Russian drones circle ahead, they’re faced with relentless bombardment, and buildings are engulfed in flames collapsing around them as they work to save the lives of those remaining in the area. FIRMS data highlights the amount of fires that have broken out in the area.

Locals need some time before being evacuated to gather documents, belongings, and their pets. After the frontline had not moved for almost 10 years, they weren't expecting such a brutal and immediate escalation, but now every minute counts. 

“We carried a man, who could not move, from the third floor. As we reached the car for evacuation, artillery hit his building. That was probably our closest call so far,”’ Anna recalled. It is a real testament to how every second is just a moment between life and death. However, even amongst hell and destruction, Anna is able to reflect on the powerful moments of families being safely reunited. “It’s so beautiful and makes everything worth it.”

This story is ongoing and has really only just begun, civilians still remain in the area, the teams Anna and Bogdan are working with still have a lot of work to do while the ferocious fighting continues. 

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