The Russian offensive is targeting Ukraine’s most important cities in the east.

“Of course they will,” Maxim says. “There are far more of them than us.”

They dug deep into this dense eastern Ukrainian forest, near Sloviansk, and are part of Ukraine’s territorial defense – unprofessional soldiers, most of whom signed up in the early days of Russia’s February invasion.

Until now, they have avoided contact with the enemy, spending their days under camouflage nets, next to giant pyramids of water bottles. But every moment of every day they live with the roar of artillery. Their forest camp is regularly bombarded with cluster munitions. Shortly after CNN’s visit, a cluster strike caused some soldiers to be badly injured.

And while they are well equipped with anti-tank weapons, which were critical in deterring the initial Russian invasion, these are not the weapons they need at this stage of the war.

“I can hear you,” says Maxim’s comrade Mikhail, when heavy weapons rumble in the distance. Like others involved in this story, he asked that only his name be used for privacy reasons.

The situation in the war in Ukraine is changing as Russia moves east

“For every heavy shot we fire, they fire 10 or 20. That’s because we don’t have artillery.”

In 2014, a conflict with Russia began in the Donbas. And after Ukraine defeated a Russian attempt to behead the government in Kyiv earlier this year, the Donbass has once again been at the center of the war.

Their enemy is advancing, albeit slowly. Farther east, Russian forces have captured the industrial city of Severodonetsk and appear close to encircling Ukrainian forces in nearby Lysichansk.

This puts pressure on the remaining settlements of Donbass, which are the most important for Ukraine – Bakhmut, Slavyansk and especially Kramatorsk. The Territorial Defense Unit is just one in a network of traffic jams that the Ukrainian military uses to plug gaps in its defenses.

If and when they come into direct contact with the enemy, this will mean that the artillery has not been able to contain the Russian advance, and real danger threatens Slavyansk.

Mikhail peeks over the edge of the trench to show why his unit was stationed there. He is moving towards the road. “If a convoy comes,” he says, “our job is to stop it.”

The position of the territorial defense of Ukraine in the east of Ukraine.
Mikhail says that he and his comrades do not have enough artillery.

The civilians they hope to protect are already and increasingly suffering from Russia’s advance.

The missiles fire their deadly cassettes over apartment buildings, supermarket parking lots and country houses. Bombs burst windows and doors, and any person unfortunate enough to be caught off guard.

Igor, who is under thirty, was one of them. On Monday, he said goodbye to his wife and walked from their ground-floor apartment in a Soviet-era building to the cab he used to make a living. He never did.

“I stood here crying,” said Valentina, 76, his neighbor. “He was such a good guy. His name was Igor. And my husband’s name is also Igor.

The explosions scattered debris from her bed, and now her husband, a former construction worker, is sawing a piece of chipboard to close the broken window above their home’s door.

“It’s very scary,” she says. “I cover myself with a pillow at night.”

Slavyansk bears the brunt of the Russian offensive from the north. In the south, Bakhmut pays even heavier losses.

Marina stands in her front yard, cleaning glass that was shattered by a Russian bomb just a few hours ago.

Maxim is part of the territorial defense of Ukraine.  As he waits for Russian troops, he says he often thinks of his pregnant wife and unborn son.
Western anti-tank weapons in position in eastern Ukraine.

“We didn’t hurt anyone,” she says painfully. “We are ordinary people. My husband has been an ambulance worker for 45 years saving lives.”

This street is mostly old people. Many sons and daughters left long ago, unable to persuade their parents to join them.

“We don’t have gas, we don’t have electricity, we don’t have water. But we just want the shooting to stop.”

Back in the woods waiting for Russian troops, Maxim says he often thinks of his pregnant wife in their hometown of Kharkov and their unborn son.

“We will throw them out of here, and he will know this: that we did not just stand here and do nothing. This is our land, and they have no right to come here.”