Approaching a pivotal moment in their invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces have tightened their vise around two key eastern cities, increasing the risk that their slow, brutal advance will capture the cities and trap the Ukrainian forces defending them. will run.
The fall of the two neighboring cities, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, would almost complete the Russian conquest of Luhansk province, a key part of the Donbas region that the Russians are trying to conquer in the four-month-old war. That would provide a strategic and symbolic victory for President Vladimir V. Putin, and open avenues for the Russian military to penetrate deeper into Ukraine.
The Russians have captured three more villages south of the cities and brought them within easier artillery range of Lysychansk, where Ukrainian troops are digging high ground for what could be a battle for the city. Moscow’s troops already control most of Sievierodonetsk, to the east, which lies lower and has been reduced to ruins by Russian bombardment.
“Russian troops are moving closer to Lysychansk,” Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian regional administrator, warned on Telegram, the messaging app, on Wednesday, as he confirmed the capture of the villages of Mirna Dolina, Pidlisne and Toshkivka.
After failing to capture Ukraine’s two largest cities, Kiev, the capital, and Kharkov, early in the war, Mr Putin turned his attention to Donbas, the eastern region that is Ukraine’s industrial heart. where Russian-backed separatists have been waging war since 2014. The invasion has been much more difficult for the Russian armed forces, which have suffered setbacks and heavy losses – as have the Ukrainians – and Mr Putin is seen by Western analysts as eager for something he can call success.
For Ukrainians, the biggest short-term concern is that Russian artillery will get close enough to make it more difficult for them to use a highway that runs southwest of Lysychansk and is the main supply and evacuation route for Ukrainian troops and civilians in the city, who has been largely stripped of its antebellum population of about 100,000.
That raises the possibility that Ukrainian fighters defending Lysychansk could be surrounded and cut off. Ukrainian fighters in the port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov were surrounded for weeks before surrendering in early May.
The fighting around Sievierodonetsk, which has been going on for weeks, intensified for Ukrainians on Sunday when Russian forces broke through a key defensive position near Toshkivka, forcing Ukrainian troops to rush reinforcements into the area.
Ukrainian forces still control all of Lysychansk, but in Sievierodonetsk, across the Siversky Donets River, they have only a chemical plant that also houses civilians, Haidai said Monday.
In addition to Luhansk province, the Russians control about half of Donetsk province and are pushing from the east, north and south to take more territory. But analysts say Russia’s battered forces face an even tougher battle to capture more of Donetsk.
A British Military Intelligence Report said on Wednesday that Moscow-backed separatist forces in Donetsk had reported the killing of more than 2,000 personnel this year and injuring nearly 9,000. Those figures were 55 percent of the original strength, the British assessment said, highlighting “the extraordinary exhaustion suffered by Russian and pro-Russian forces in the Donbas.”
Ukrainian forces have also suffered heavy casualties and are more likely to rely on poorly trained units to hold onto parts of the Eastern Front.
For both Russia and Ukraine, “the ability to generate and deploy reserve units at the front is likely to become increasingly important for the outcome of the war.”
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a late-night speech that his country’s military was strengthening its defenses in Luhansk, using “tactical moves”, a possible reference to the arrival of longer-range artillery supplied by the United States. and some European governments. But he acknowledged that Luhansk was “really the most difficult area right now”.