DRUZHKIVKA, Ukraine — Ukraine’s decision to retreat from Sievierodonetsk, a strategic city in the country’s east, hands Russia another victory in its grinding campaign to seize the Donbas region.
But the battle for Lysychansk, the city across the Siversky Donets River, is far from over, as Ukrainian officials signaled their forces would pull back in order to retrench and take advantage of the higher ground on that side of the river.
The fight for the second of the twin cities covers a slice of territory now roughly 15 miles wide and three-quarters surrounded by Russian forces. The battle for the area, which has come to be known as the Sievierodonetsk pocket, has entered a new phase as Russian troops move to encircle Lysychansk.
“Our colleagues are holding on,” said Oleg, a member of a Ukrainian tank crew whose captured Russian T-80 had pulled off the front for repairs, its dark green hull now repainted with the Ukrainian flag. “They are repelling the enemy’s onslaught and holding the defense.”
The fight for Sievierodonetsk was vicious. Street-to-street urban combat, interspersed with intense artillery barrages, meant casualties mounted on both sides. Ukrainian troops, using buildings and alleyways to get in close, tried to slow the Russian advance and negate Russia’s superior firepower out of fear of hitting their own troops.
The destruction of the three bridges connecting Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in recent weeks left Ukrainian forces in an increasingly perilous position: Sending in reinforcements to Sievierodonetsk was almost impossible, and evacuating casualties was equally difficult.
The wounded “sometimes die because the evacuation is stretching for one and a half hours to two hours,” said Sergiy, a Ukrainian medic stationed in Lysychansk, who noted that casualties often had to be ferried across the Siversky Donets river in small boats. “Human resources are worth more than the buildings that are left there,” he added.
The Ukrainian defenders of Lysychansk will soon face a similar dilemma as those troops who were once in Sievierodonetsk. Russian troops who broke through Ukrainian defenses in the east this week have pushed near Lysychansk’s southeastern outskirts and are positioning to advance farther from the south, cutting off the key highway that runs into the city.
A constellation of villages line the base of the rolling hills in Lysychansk’s southern reaches, where the fate of Ukrainian troops in the city could be decided.
The terrain has aided the city’s defenses by providing ideal firing positions for artillery. But if the Russians break through one of those villages, the Ukrainian defenders would begin to lose the advantage of elevation.
“Everything will depend on the intensity of the enemy’s attack from the direction of Mirna Dolina,” said Oleksandr Voronenko, a soldier defending the city, referring to one of the villages just south of Lysychansk. “They will not advance from the direction of Sievierodonetsk. The landscape is disadvantageous.”
Russian forces have already begun to harass the supply lines running into Lysychansk with greater intensity by targeting vehicles, bridges and key intersections with airstrikes and artillery barrages.
“It increasingly appears that the Sievierodonetsk-Lysychansk pocket could become untenable, but given the limited forces Russia has available, they are likely to run into another line of Ukrainian defenses at Bakhmut,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at C.N.A., a research institute in Arlington, Va. “Russia is making incremental gains, but its ability to capture the Donbas remains very much in question.”
If the Sievierodonetsk pocket collapses, Russian forces will be in a better position to advance south and target Bakhmut, a key strategic supply hub where Russian forces have already begun to increase pressure with cruise missile strikes and artillery.
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