DRUZHKIVKA, Ukraine – After weeks of bloody street fighting and months of deadly artillery fire, Ukrainian forces will withdraw from Sievierodonetsk, a city that President Volodymyr Zelensky says will determine the “fate” of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.
The withdrawal of the devastated industrial city on the eastern bank of the Siversky Donets River was confirmed on Friday by Serhiy Haidai, the head of Luhansk’s military administration. This represents the largest loss for the Ukrainian military since Russian forces seized Mariupol a month ago after an equally brutal campaign of heavy shelling and street fighting left the southern port in ruins.
This means that the Russian army can now fully concentrate on taking control of Lysychansk, the twin city of Sievierodonetsk on the west bank of the river and the last city in the Luhansk region still under Ukrainian control. Analysts expect the Russians to then aim to seize the rest of the Donetsk region still held by Ukrainian forces, which would complete their conquest of Donbass.
For now, the battle is far from over, and the fight for what has become the Sievierodonetsk Pocket, a sliver of territory now about 15 miles wide and three-quarters surrounded by Russian forces, is entering a new phase as Russian troops move to encircle Lysychansk.
“Our colleagues are holding their ground,” said Oleg, a Ukrainian tank crewman whose captured Russian T-80 had the front removed for repairs, its dark green hull now repainted with the Ukrainian flag. “They repel the enemy’s assault and maintain the defense.”
Mr Haidai said it was “not logical” for Ukraine to retain what he described as broken positions in Sievierodonetsk. About 90% of the city’s buildings have been destroyed, according to Ukraine, and only about 8,000 civilians remain out of a pre-war population of 160,000.
“The number of people killed will increase every day,” Haidai said on Friday. “It was decided that our defenders would withdraw to new positions, fortified areas, and from there conduct hostilities and inflict damage on the enemy.”
The fight for Sievierodonetsk was brutal. Urban street-to-street fighting interspersed with heavy artillery barrages resulted in casualties on both sides. Ukrainian troops attempted to slow the Russian advance, using buildings and alleys to close in and negate Russia’s superior firepower.
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The destruction of the three bridges connecting Sievierodonetsk to Lysychansk in recent weeks has left Ukrainian forces in an increasingly perilous position: sending reinforcements to Sievierodonetsk was nearly impossible and evacuating the wounded was equally difficult.
The wounded “sometimes die because the evacuation stretches for an hour and a half to two hours”, said Sergiy, a Ukrainian doctor stationed in Lysychansk, who noted that often the wounded had to be transported across the Siversky River. Donets in small boats. “Human resources are worth more than the buildings that remain there,” he added.
The Ukrainian defenders of Lysychansk will soon face a dilemma similar to that of the troops who were in Sievierodonetsk. Russian forces pushed near the southeastern outskirts of Lysychansk after breaking through Ukrainian defenses to the east this week, and are positioning themselves to advance further south, cutting off the key highway that leads to the town.
Defenders of Lysychansk enjoy an advantage in its elevated terrain, which provides artillery firing positions. But if the Russians break through the surrounding villages, the Ukrainian army will begin to lose this advantage.
Russian forces have already begun attacking supply lines running through Lysychansk, targeting key vehicles, bridges and intersections with airstrikes and artillery barrages.
If they conquer the city, Russian troops could then advance southwest, targeting a key strategic supply hub in the town of Bakhmut, where in recent days Russian forces have begun to increase pressure with missile strikes. cruisers and artillery.
“There is growing evidence that the Sievierodonetsk-Lysychansk pocket could become untenable, but given the limited forces Russia has, they are likely to come up against another Ukrainian line of defense at Bakhmut,” said Michael Kofman, director Russian Studies at NAC, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “Russia is making gradual progress, but its ability to conquer Donbass remains highly uncertain.”
Ukrainian officials said up to 200 soldiers a day were dying in fields and villages in eastern Ukraine.
The Russians also suffered huge losses, according to military analysts. Some analysts said that by holding out for weeks in Sievierodonetsk, the outgunned Ukrainian military forced Russia to deploy more men and armor into the fight, severely degrading Russia’s combat capabilities. in other areas.
The fighting, these analysts say, may have given time for more longer-range Western weapons to flow into Ukraine and for Ukrainian forces to begin staging counterattacks in other parts of the country.
The Kremlin’s ‘ideological fixation’ on Sievierodonetsk ‘will likely come at the ultimate expense of Russian capabilities in future advances in Ukraine’, even though the loss of the city is still a blow for Ukraine, the Institute for War Study, a Washington-based research institute, said Thursday.
Mr Zelensky had described Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk as “dead towns” shattered by bombing and emptied of their inhabitants. He had alternated in recent weeks between explaining the merits and the risks of withdrawing from the two cities.
Just over two weeks ago, however, he called the fight for Sievierodonetsk a pivotal point in the wider war for control of eastern Ukraine. “In many ways, the fate of our Donbass is being decided there,” he said in a June 8 address to the nation.
“We are defending our positions, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy,” Zelensky said. “It’s a very fierce, very difficult battle. Probably one of the most difficult in this whole war.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Friday that its troops had captured 10 Ukrainian villages in the Luhansk region over the past five days and claimed to have cornered up to 2,000 Ukrainian troops in the area. The ministry’s claims, which have been exaggerated or false in the past, could not be independently verified. A Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman dismissed the report as false.
As Russia claims more territory, a partisan resistance movement seems to be growing in the occupied cities, fueled by Russian repression and deteriorating economic and humanitarian conditions, not to mention Ukrainian nationalism.
In the latest attack, Ukrainian guerrillas claimed Friday to have killed a Kremlin-backed politician in the Russian-controlled southern region of Kherson.
Dmitry Savluchenko, the head of the region’s Department of Youth and Sports, exploded in his car, according to Ukrainian and Russian officials. Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Russian-appointed administration, called the attack “a despicable act of terrorism”.
“Threats that come to me will not break me and my comrades,” he said in a video address, seated under a portrait of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. “No matter what happens, even after us, Russia will be there, and our children will speak Russian.”
Ukrainians celebrated the attack and said their resistance was growing.
“Our supporters have another victory,” Serhii Khlan, adviser to the head of the Kherson region military administration, wrote on Facebook on Friday. “A pro-Russian activist and traitor was blown up in a car at one of the construction sites in Kherson in the morning.”
The head of Ukraine’s intelligence agency said this week that Ukrainian insurgents injured another Russian-backed official, Oleksiy Kovalyov, in the Kherson region. At least two other attacks on people working with Russians in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions were also reported this week.
The Russians have not acknowledged all of the attacks, which have been reported in testimonies passed to Ukrainian officials.
Ivan Fedorov, the exiled mayor of Melitopol who is an unofficial spokesman for the Ukrainian resistance in his city, told a news conference on Friday that rewards of up to $10,000 were being offered for the murder of the main mandatory rulers of Moscow.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported from Druzhkivka, Ukraine, Marc Santora of Warsaw and Michael Levenson from New York. The report was provided by Ivan Nechepurenko from Istanbul and Natalia Yermak from Druzhkivka.