It was a victory that came at the cost of a city.
After weeks of laying siege to Volnovakha in eastern Ukraine, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the Russian defense ministry’s spokesman, claimed on March 11 that it had been “liberated.”
But after a relentless bombardment of the city, Russia was asserting control over a wasteland of rubble and ash.
When Russia launched its war in Ukraine last month, the Kremlin repeatedly said it was acting to prevent a “genocide” in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
As the war entered its fourth week on Thursday, Russian forces had their most complete control in territory around this area, known as the Donbas. They are also leaving a trail of death and destruction, the scope of which is only vaguely known to outside observers, as the fighting rages on. But witness testimony, photographs, video evidence, statements from local officials and satellite imagery all paint a consistent picture of destruction on a vast scale.
The city of Izyum — which is nearly 200 miles north of Mariupol, the besieged city on the Sea of Azov — has also been surrounded by Russian forces for two weeks, and officials there say that tens of thousands of people are facing a situation as dire as the one in Mariupol.
“No water, no light, no heat, no food, no medicine, no communication. The situation is no better than Mariupol,” Izyum’s deputy mayor, Volodymyr Matsokin, wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. “There is no one to bury the dead. Medical care is not provided.”
Before the war, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk were cities with populations of more than 100,000. Witnesses say both are in ruins. Russian shelling overnight targeting the city of Rubizhne, population 50,000, turned whole streets into caldrons of flames, the head of the Luhansk regional military administration, Sergiy Haidai, wrote on Telegram.
“At least 27 houses were set on fire,” he wrote.
Before it fell, Volnovakha issued the same kind of urgent pleas for help and humanitarian assistance now echoing out across the east.
About 40 miles north of Mariupol, Volnovakha was considered a key strategic target for Russian forces as they pressed to move on Mariupol, secure the region and establish a land bridge from Crimea to Russia.
Ukrainian officials estimate that 90 percent of the buildings have been destroyed and are uninhabitable. There is no official estimate of those killed.
“In general, Volnovakha with its infrastructure as such no longer exists,” Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of the Donetsk region, told the Ukrainian television channel Direct.
Dmytro, 29, described a scene of chaos and desperation when he fled with three older relatives on March 4. People rushed to the main town square, hoping to escape, when more Russian shells exploded nearby.
“All these people had to hide in buildings,” he said. “But since these buildings were all destroyed, they just hid behind the burned walls. Wherever they could.”
“Around the square there are boutique shopping buildings, stores. Everything was burned black,” he said. The train station was also burning. He said that in the main square he saw a body, which he only realized was dead after approaching.
“Thank God it didn’t last long,” he said. “Someone came to pick us up. Regular civilians came in cars to help to get people out, too. Whoever had a place in the car were picking others up. Thank God we were able to get out of there.”
Pavlo Yeshtokin, 30, also escaped. But his father, who had worked at a supermarket called the Generous Basket, remained in the city longer. Just six days into the war, he told his son that almost everything was destroyed.
All of the newer buildings and the main city market were burned down, he said. Old houses are more durable, he said, and were standing even if they were missing a wall.
Mr. Yeshtokin, a journalist, said that when he fled, he did not take much, thinking he would be able to return. He said that there were no Ukrainian authorities left in the city, and that no humanitarian aid could be brought in from the Ukrainian government.
The day after the Russians took control, the Defense Ministry in Moscow issued a statement saying that “appropriate humanitarian measures are being carried out with the population, and none of the residents are going to leave their homes.”
The claim could not be independently verified.
Mr. Yeshtoken said he had seen videos on the Russian news media showing its soldiers giving out assistance, but he thinks they were a distorted version of reality. “Nobody looks normal, lively — they are red-faced, seemingly shellshocked, scared, moving slowly, sitting on the ground,” he said.
There has been no effort to rebuild anything, he said. “People keep living in the basements and just go around from house to house,” he said.
His grandmother is among those left to survive in the ruins.
“My father went to his 92-year-old mother,” Pavlo said. “She did not understand what was happening. He wrapped her in blankets, talked to her and left.”
“The next day he was evacuated, but his grandmother stayed there. We don’t know what’s happened to her,” he said.
Attempts to reach her have failed, he said. His father has not been allowed to return to look for her, and even relatives on the Russian side of the border cannot access the city. They have been told that people can come to Russia, but no one is allowed to travel from Russia to the ruins of Volnovakha.