LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — Just to move around the city, Ukrainian soldiers accelerate to breakneck speeds in their SUVs, screech around corners, run into courtyards, then huddle and run for cover.
“They see us and open fire,” Colonel Yuriy Vashchuk said of the need to move quickly or become a vulnerable target for Russian artillery. “There is no place in this city that is safe.”
He roamed the high ground of Lysychansk, across the river from Sievierodonetsk, the site of the fiercest fighting in eastern Ukraine. To be prepared, he placed a hand grenade in the cup holder between the front seats of his vehicle. A box of pistol ammo slid back and forth on the dashboard as he drove.
Signs of Ukraine’s tenuous military positions are everywhere: in the hills overlooking Sievierodonetsk, smoke from about a dozen fires bear witness to weeks of urban seesaw combat. The only supply route to the west is littered with burnt-out vehicles, hit by Russian artillery.
Metallic explosions from incoming projectiles sound every few minutes.
These two cities, separated by the Seversky Donets River, became the focal point of the battle in the east, although weeks of bombing drove most civilians away, and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky recently referred to them as “dead cities”.
Russia’s objective is clear: it aims to capture the cities, even if it means flattening them, and continue its march westward.
However, Ukraine’s strategy remains uncertain. Analysts say Sievierodonetsk, with its empty streets and hollow buildings, has limited military significance, and in recent days Zelensky has spoken both of the merits of retreating and the long-term risks of doing so.
On Wednesday night, he re-emphasized its importance, framing the struggle here as pivotal to the broader battle for the region. “In many ways, the fate of our Donbas is being decided there,” he said in his nightly address to the nation.
“We defended our positions, we inflicted significant losses on the enemy,” Zelensky said. “This is a very fierce, very difficult battle. Probably one of the most difficult throughout this war.”
Still, mixed signals from the government surfaced again on Thursday when Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, made a desperate plea for more powerful weapons. “We have proved that, unlike many others, we are not afraid of the Kremlin,” he said. “But as a country, we cannot afford to lose our best sons and daughters.”
He warned that around 100 Ukrainian soldiers were being killed every day.
Indeed, the fighting on the plains of eastern Ukraine has become a race between the Russian tactic of making slow, methodical advances that gain ground while reducing cities to rubble and killing untold numbers, and the delivery – too slow, say the Ukrainians – of powerful western weapons needed to stop the invaders.
The Ukrainian military and government are now making no secret of the challenges they face in the East, three and a half months after the Russian invasion. His daily updates highlighting real setbacks are uncharacteristically honest by military press office standards, a tactic perhaps designed to add a sense of urgency to his daily calls for Western heavy weaponry.
Russia is also moving quickly to punish Ukrainian soldiers captured on the battlefield.
On Thursday, two Britons and a Moroccan who fought for the Ukrainian army were sentenced to death by a court in a Russian-occupied region of eastern Ukraine after being accused of being mercenaries, Russian news agency Interfax reported. .
The death sentences for the men – Aiden Aslin, 28, and Shaun Pinner, 48, of Britain and Brahim Saadoun of Morocco – have alarmed human rights defenders and raised questions about protecting thousands of foreign-born fighters serving in the military. Ukraine, some of whom were taken prisoner.
In Russia, investigators said on Thursday they had opened 1,100 cases of potential “crimes against peace” committed by captured Ukrainian military personnel, possibly paving the way for a mass trial.
The fighting in Sievierodonetsk boiled down to bloody, block-by-block fighting, although a top Ukrainian official, Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelensky, suggested on Thursday that Russia may have partially withdrawn to clear the battlefield for more. artillery bombardments.
Sievierodonetsk lies on the mostly flat east bank of the river, and the only supply line for Ukrainian forces is a partially obstructed bridge. Two other bridges were blown up early in the fight. On the river floodplain below one of the dilapidated bridges lies the wreckage of an upside-down truck that fell when the span was destroyed.
On the high west bank is the city of Lysychansk. The two cities form a single metropolitan region, separated only by the river. Lysychansk, on the high bank, is seen as a more defensible retreat position for Ukrainians fighting in this area.
In Lysychansk, chunks of asphalt, cut tree limbs and other bombing debris litter the city’s streets, which were virtually empty on a visit this week. Broken electrical lines fall from poles. At one point, an unexploded Russian rocket protrudes from a sidewalk.
Across the river, the streets of Sievierodonetsk were at times eerily silent, at other times a cacophony of gunfire and explosions.
Russia-Ukraine War: Major Developments
Rapid fire from large-caliber guns from armored vehicles, sounding like a jackhammer in action, echoed through the area.
A few kilometers to the west, another battle is being fought in a pastoral landscape of steppe and small villages as Russian forces try to cut supply lines, surround the two towns and trap Ukrainian fighters there. The two armies continually fire artillery at each other, with the Russians having the upper hand for now.
A maze of country roads is now the only route for Ukrainians, and is vulnerable to Russian artillery. In a field a few hundred meters from a road on Wednesday, a Ukrainian military vehicle burned and released a cloud of black smoke.
“They are trying to make a circle, arrest all the soldiers inside and destroy them,” said Mariana Bezugla, deputy head of the Security, Defense and Intelligence Committee of Ukraine’s Parliament.
The military does not disclose troop numbers, but Bezugla said several thousand Ukrainian soldiers are now stationed in the area at risk of being surrounded.
Mrs. Bezugla wears a military uniform and gold aviator sunglasses while driving in a van that was once used as an armored vehicle for a bank. She has been living in the potential siege zone for the past two weeks, she said, working to ensure that military aid to Ukraine is not misused. This issue is likely to increase in importance as billions of dollars in Western aid arrive.
That weaponry is coming in, but not coming to the front quickly. Poland has promised tanks and armored vehicles, according to the Polish government. Norway sent self-propelled howitzers, along with spare parts and ammunition. The United States and allies sent towed howitzers. And earlier this month, the United States and Britain promised advanced, mobile, multi-rocket launchers, which the Ukrainian military has said it needs to hit Russian targets far from the front.
But it’s unclear how much of that has made it to the places where it’s needed most, and whether it will be enough.
“I cannot say that I am satisfied with the pace and quantity of weapons supplies. Absolutely not,” said Reznikov, the defense minister. “But at the same time, I am extremely grateful to the countries that support us.”
Mrs. Bezugla said she was also grateful. “But for me, it’s hard to understand why help is given in doses, just enough to survive but not enough to win,” she said. “It worries me. Our people are dying every day here.”
In a field of green sprouts of wheat, a sign of the need for additional American military aid was the blown up debris from the previous assistance. An American M777 howitzer had lost an artillery duel; it was blasted into several blackened and charred pieces amid the craters of Russian artillery.
The report was contributed by Oleksandr Chubko from Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Marc Santora from Warsaw, Michael Levenson from new york, Dan Bilefsky from Montreal, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia and Valerie Hopkins from Chernihiv, Ukraine.