What Ukraine Has Lost – The New York Times

Few countries since World War II have experienced this level of devastation. But it’s been impossible for anybody to see more than glimpses of it. It’s too vast. Every battle, every bombing, every missile strike, every house burned down, has left its mark across multiple front lines, back and forth over more than two years.

This is the first comprehensive picture of where the Ukraine war has been fought and the totality of the destruction. Using detailed analysis of years of satellite data, we developed a record of each town, each street, each building that has been blown apart.

The scale is hard to comprehend. More buildings have been destroyed in Ukraine than if every building in Manhattan were to be leveled four times over. Parts of Ukraine hundreds of miles apart look like Dresden or London after World War II, or Gaza after half a year of bombardment.

To produce these estimates, The New York Times worked with two leading remote sensing scientists, Corey Scher of the City University of New York Graduate Center and Jamon Van Den Hoek of Oregon State University, to analyze data from radar satellites that can detect small changes in the built environment.

The remains of around 1,000 munitions gathered from Russian bombardment of the city of Kharkiv.

Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

More than 900 schools, hospitals, churches and other institutions have been damaged or destroyed, the analysis shows, even though these sites are explicitly protected under the Geneva Conventions.

Source: InSar data by Jamon Van Den Hoek and Corey Scher, building footprints by OpenStreetMap. Satellite images by Maxar Technologies via Google, June 2023

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These estimates are conservative. They don’t include Crimea or parts of western Ukraine where accurate data was unavailable. The true scope of destruction is likely to be even greater — and it keeps growing. In mid-May, the Russians bombed some towns in northeastern Ukraine so ferociously that one resident said they were erasing streets.

Ukrainian forces have caused major damage, too, by bombing frontline Russian positions and attacking Russian-held territory like Crimea and Donetsk City. While it is not always possible to determine which side is responsible, the devastation recorded in Russian-held areas pales in comparison to what is seen on the Ukrainian side.

The Kremlin referred questions about this article to Russia’s Defense Ministry, which did not respond.

A school in the village of Vilkhivka, occupied for weeks by Russian forces.

Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

A destroyed operating room in a hospital in Huliaipole.

Diego Ibarra Sánchez for The New York Times

Few places have been as devastated as Marinka, a small town in eastern Ukraine.

Comprehensive School No. 1, where so many young Ukrainians learned to write their first letters, has been blown apart. The Orthodox Cathedral, where couples were married, has been toppled. The chestnut-lined streets where generations strolled, the milk plant and cereal factory where people worked, the Museum of Local Lore, the Marinka Region Administration Building, go-to shops and cafes — all landmarks for generations — have been reduced to faceless ruins.

The damage runs into the billions, but the true cost is much higher. Marinka was a community. Marinka was living history. Marinka was a wellspring for families for nearly 200 years. Its erasure has left people feeling lost.

“If I shut my eyes, I can see everything from my old life,” said Iryna Hrushkovksa, 34, who was born and raised in Marinka. “I can see the front gate. I can walk through the front door. I can step into our beautiful kitchen and look into the cupboards.”

“But if I open my eyes,” she said, “it’s all gone.”

People’s Museum of History of Konstantynivka

Before everyone fled, when a strong wind came from the west, the people in Marinka used to do something slightly provocative: They would tie a yellow and blue Ukrainian flag to a helium balloon and float it across the nearby frontline to land somewhere in Russia-controlled territory.

“True Ukrainians lived here,” said Ms. Hrushkovska’s mother, Hanna Horban. “They worked in the fields and factories, they created their future and the future of their children. They lived under a Ukrainian sky, free and our sky.”

Reminiscing about her old town makes her eyes well up. Sometimes, she says, she sees Marinka in her dreams.

It’s the same for many others. A young Ukrainian woman in Berlin recently opened a photo exhibition on Marinka. Videos have surfaced on social media featuring photos of pre-war Marinka with sad music playing in the background. Some of Marinka’s displaced people have chosen to hang together, in another town, Pavlograd, a hundred miles away.

In many ways, the story of this one town — its closeness, its vulnerability and its ruin — is the story of this war and perhaps all wars.

The Horbans settled down in Marinka at least three generations ago. By the early 1970s, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, they had built their own house at 102B Blagodatna Street. It was large, by Soviet standards: around 1,200 square feet, with three bedrooms and bright red tiles leading to the front door. In the yard, they raised ducks, chickens, two cows and two pigs; they grew all kinds of vegetables, from potatoes to peas; and they plucked apples, cherries, peaches and apricots from their own trees.

“In the 1990s,” Ms. Hrushkovska said, “we survived off this.”

Marinka started out as a farming hamlet, founded in 1843 by adventurous peasants and Cossacks from the Eurasian steppe. Legend has it that it took its name from the founder’s wife, a friendly Mariia.

By the early 20th century, this entire swath of eastern Ukraine transformed. Iron and coal were discovered, in a region soon to be called the Donbas, and the city of Donetsk became an industrial hub. Marinka, about 15 miles away, shifted from a quiet farming town to a busy suburb.

By the mid-1960s, it had a coal mine, a milk factory, a tire factory, a bread factory and soon a museum, a public sauna and two public swimming pools.

Photos from 1917 and 1970, courtesy of the People’s Museum of History of Konstantynivka; 2015, Celestino Arce/NurPhoto, via Getty Images; 2022, Tyler Hicks/The New York Times; 2022, Laura Boushnak for The New York Times; 2023, Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times.

In the spring, the back lanes smelled of fresh flowers. In the summer, kids swam in the Osykova River. In the fall, workers piled into trucks heading for the collective farms and harvested immense amounts of wheat, afterwards swigging vodka straight from the bottle and dancing in the stubbly fields. The best restaurant in town was Kolos, known for its “Donbas cutlet,” a cut of high-quality pork, breaded and cooked with a hunk of butter.

“Marinka was blooming,” said Ms. Horban, who was also born here.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Marinka sank into disorder. State-owned enterprises shut down and Ms. Horban’s husband, Vova, a veterinarian, lost his job and had to dig coal for a living, at age 40.

Things stabilized by 2010, and bolstered by trade with Russia, Donetsk developed into one of Ukraine’s swankier cities. Marinka prospered by extension and grew to around 10,000 people.

In the spring of 2014, everything changed, again.

“All of a sudden strange men appeared with weapons and started stealing cars,” said Svitlana Moskalevska, another longtime resident.

That was just the beginning. Violent protests broke out. Then shooting in the streets. The Russians were backing an insurgency in Donetsk. It was confusing. And terrifying.

By mid-2014 — after thousands were killed, including dozens in Marinka — Donetsk had become the capital of a new Russian puppet state, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. For several months, Marinka was occupied as well.

The Ukrainian Army eventually cleared Marinka, but it wasn’t strong enough to take back Donetsk. So the front line between Ukraine and Russia cut right through Marinka, less than a mile from the Horbans’ home.

People shut themselves in at night and drew their curtains, fearful of being shelled. Basic services collapsed. Marinka used to get treated water from Donetsk but the Russians cut off the pipes, leaving it no choice but to hook up to the Osykova River.

“It was disgusting,” said Olha Herus, Ms. Horban’s cousin. “Fish came out of the faucet, sometimes even little frogs.”

On Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, one of the first places it attacked was Marinka. This time, the Russians bombed the town with aircraft and heavy artillery, causing far greater damage than in 2014.

Pre-war Wikimedia Commons via Ліонкінг. April 2022, Serhii Nuzhnenko, Reuters. June 2022, by Gleb Garanich, Reuters. January 2023, by Leonid ХВ Ragozin via social media.

Ms. Hrushkovska and her daughter, Varvara, evacuated a few days later. Some older residents, like Ms. Herus’s mother, Tetiana, refused to leave. She told everyone that she had become an “expert” at identifying the different types of munitions flying around — artillery, mortars, tank rounds, hand grenades, airplane bombs. She assured her family that she always knew when to seek shelter in the vegetable cellar. But at a deep level, it seems she simply didn’t want to leave.

“You have to understand,” Ms. Herus explained. “In Ukraine, people don’t like to move from one region to another. This is the mentality. We like living in one house for three to four generations.”

On April 25, 2022, Ms. Herus’s mom called and uttered two words no one could recall her using before: “I’m scared.”

An hour later she was killed.

The White Angels, a volunteer paramedic group, evacuated Marinka’s last residents in November 2022.

Source: Satellite image by Maxar Technologies, June 2022

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The Devastation Grows

In the early months of the war, the Russians quickly captured several cities in eastern Ukraine. They almost captured Kyiv. Since then, the conflict has largely settled into a war of attrition, which favors the Russians with vastly more men and ammunition. The spikes on the following map show the heavy damage since the initial Russian invasion.

The Ukrainian military lost Marinka in December 2023.

They had been fighting for the city since 2014. Hundreds if not thousands of men from both sides died for it. At the very end, a small group of Ukrainian soldiers were holed up on the western edge of town in a warren of tunnels and pulverized basements. The rest was Russian territory.

When the Ukrainians peeked their heads out, they were stunned.

“I saw a picture of Hiroshima, and Marinka is absolutely the same,” said one Ukrainian soldier, Henadiy. “Nothing remains.” Following military protocol, he provided only his given name.

Another soldier, who asked to be identified by his call sign, Karakurt, described cars with the paint scorched off, houses cut down to their jagged foundations and long, empty roads that sparkled with glass and smelled of dust, smoke and gunpowder.

“Whatever could burn, burned,” he said.

The scars of war

Since the beginning of the war, satellites have flagged more than 210,000 buildings in Ukraine as damaged. About half of them are in the Donbas.

Source: InSar data by Jamon Van Den Hoek and Corey Scher, building footprints by OpenStreetMap and Microsoft Bing. Front lines of the first day of the month between March 2022 and January 2024 by the Institute for the Study of War with American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project

The New York Times.

Ukraine is determined to rebuild. The hope, however distant, is that with international cooperation Ukraine will seize Russian assets and force Russia to foot the bill for the reconstruction of entire cities like Marinka.

But a long war may still stretch ahead. In recent months, the Russians have had the upper hand, destroying more communities as their army seems to stagger inexorably forward. Ten million Ukrainians have fled from their homes — one in four people.

Last spring, a few dozen people from Marinka gathered at a school in Pavlograd, which is considered reasonably safe. The children wore crisply ironed embroidered shirts called vyshyvankas. In a large room with big windows, they performed dances and sang patriotic songs that were beamed by video to displaced Marinka people around the world. Adults stood along the wall, tears dripping down their faces.

Children whose families fled Marinka celebrating Ukrainian folk traditions in Pavlograd.

Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

“You know the simplest way to make a person cry?” Ms. Hrushkovska asked. “Make them remember their city and their home.”

She and her daughter, Vavara, 13, are now squeezed into a small, two-room apartment in Pavlograd.

“My old kitchen was bigger than this whole place,” she joked.

Then she broke into tears.

Varvara Hrushkovska, right, and her friend Hanna Kovalenko, whose families fled Marinka, in Pavlograd. Next to them is Varvara’s grandmother Hanna Horban.

Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Ms. Hrushkovska grew up in Marinka. She was married in Marinka. She raised Vavara in Marinka. Her grandparents died in Marinka. She knows she can never go back to Marinka. She senses that for the rest of her days, she will suffer from something that has no cure: everlasting homesickness.

She is considering moving abroad with her daughter.

“No matter how unpatriotic it may sound, there’s not much future for her in Ukraine,” Ms. Hrushkovska said.

“It’s not that we want to leave,” she quickly added. But with Marinka gone, she said, “we don’t know where else to go.”

Artem Hoch, 4, and his brother Danylo, 14, at their new home in Pavlograd.

Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Sources

The analysis of damage to built areas across Ukraine was conducted in collaboration with Jamon Van Den Hoek, Associate Professor of Geography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS) at Oregon State University and Corey Scher, PhD Student, City University of New York, using 10,866 Sentinel-1 images from Copernicus.

Additional data sources include East View Geospatial (settlement boundaries); Microsoft Bing and OpenStreetMap (building footprints); Global Human Settlement Layer (built area); Planet Labs and Maxar Technologies (satellite imagery); and Institute for the Study of War with American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project (historical front lines).

The archival photograph of a street scene in Marinka from the top of the story is from kumar.dn.ua. The soldiers walking through a field is by Tyler Hicks/The New York Times, and the drone photo of devastated Marinka is by Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times. Satellite image by Planet Labs.

Additional work

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn, Evelina Riabenko and Olha Kotiuzhanska contributed reporting. Helmuth Rosales, Zachary Levitt, Jeremy White, Jaime Tanner, Agnes Chang and Martín González Gómez contributed additional work.

Methodology

To document urban areas of Ukraine that were damaged during the war, we worked with remote sensing scientists to analyze changes in satellite radar data from before the war until December 2023.

A detailed technical methodology is available from the scientists, Corey Scher and Jamon Van Den Hoek.

The analysis relies on open source data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 program known as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery. These images are captured in each specific area once every 12 days.

The researchers compared images taken in every part of Ukraine before the war to images taken during the war — about 50 terabytes of imagery in total. They identified specific kinds of changes that could indicate damaged structures.

Researchers took measures to exclude other kinds changes picked up in the environment — such as seasonal changes in tree and snow cover, and human activity like mining or traffic. They excluded changes not in built areas, as defined by the 2020 Global Human Settlement Layer provided by the European Space Agency.

To spot check the data, The Times used high resolution satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies and Planet Labs, comparing the data to imagery from hundreds of settlements across Ukraine. Crimea, Sevastopol and oblasts west of Vinnytsia were excluded from the analysis because of human activities like construction and environmental conditions — such as weather, soil and vegetation — that made it more difficult to accurately distinguish structural damage.

To estimate that about 210,000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed in Ukraine, The Times compared the damaged areas to data on more than 17 million building footprints from OpenStreetMap and Microsoft Global ML Building Footprints. To roughly estimate the number of churches, hospitals, schools and other protected sites that have been damaged, The Times compared the damaged areas with known building categorizations from OpenStreetMap. The true totals of protected buildings are higher, as the categorization of many buildings is unknown.

The overall picture shown here is intentionally conservative. The full extent of the destruction is likely to be worse than what the analysis can confirm.

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