LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine – Just moving back to town, Ukrainian soldiers sped up at breakneck speeds in their SUVs, whizzed around corners, swerved into the yard, then ran out and ran for cover. hide.
“They saw us and they opened fire,” Colonel Yuriy Vashchuk said of the need to move quickly or else become a vulnerable target for Russian artillery. “There’s no place in this town that’s safe.”
He was loitering on the high ground of Lysychansk, across the river from Sievierodonetsk, the site of the fiercest fighting in eastern Ukraine. To prepare, he placed a grenade in the cup holder between the front seats of his car. A pistol cartridge slid back and forth across the dashboard as he drove.
Signs of Ukraine’s fragile military positions are everywhere: In the hills overlooking Sievierodonetsk, smoke from dozens of fires is testimony to weeks of fighting in the seesaw metropolis. The only supply road to the west was littered with burned vehicles, hit by Russian artillery fire.
There was a tinkling, metallic explosion of incoming artillery shells every few minutes.
These two cities, separated by the Seversky Donets River, have become the focus of fighting in the east, although weeks of shelling have driven most of the civilians away, and recently President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine call them “dead cities”.
Russia’s goal is clear: It is to take cities, even if that means razing them, and to continue marching west.
However, Ukraine’s strategy there remains unclear. Analysts say Sievierodonetsk, with its deserted streets and empty buildings, has only limited military significance, and in recent days Mr. Zelensky has spoken of both the value of retreat and the risks. the long-term risks of doing it.
On Wednesday night, he turned toward emphasizing its importance, seeing the fighting there as pivotal to the broader war 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, causing significant damage to the enemy,” Zelensky said. “This is a very fierce battle, very difficult. Probably one of the hardest during this war. ”
However, mixed government signals emerged on Thursday when Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, made a desperate plea for more powerful weapons. “We have proven 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 up to 100 Ukrainian soldiers are killed every day.
In effect, the fighting over the plains of eastern Ukraine has turned into a race between Russia’s tactic of making slow, methodical advances to gain ground even as they fall. towns to ruins and kills untold numbers, and the delivery – too slow, Ukrainians say – of the powerful Western weapons needed to stop the invaders.
Ukraine’s 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. Their daily updates highlight truly dishonest failures by the standards of military press offices, a tactic perhaps intended to add a sense of urgency to their daily appeals. them against the heavy weapons of the West.
Russia also moved quickly to punish Ukrainian soldiers captured on the battlefield.
Russia’s Interfax news agency reported on Thursday that two Britons and a Moroccan who fought for the Ukrainian army were arrested by a court in the Russian-occupied region of eastern Ukraine, after they were accused of being fighters. rent.
The death sentences for the men – Aiden Aslin, 28, and Shaun Pinner, 48, of the UK and Brahim Saadoun of Morocco – have alarmed human rights advocates and raised questions about protection. protect thousands of foreign-born fighters serving in Ukraine, some of whom have been taken prisoner.
In Russia, investigators on Thursday said they had opened 1,100 cases of potentially “crimes against peace” by captured Ukrainian military members, which could pave the way for a row series.
Fighting in Sievierodonetsk has turned to block fighting, although Oleksiy Arestovych, Zelensky’s adviser, suggested on Thursday that Russia might partially withdraw to clear the battlefield for further shelling.
Sievierodonetsk is on mostly flat, the east bank of the river and the only supply route for Ukrainian forces is a partially obstructed bridge. Two other bridges were blown up earlier in the fighting. On the river floodplain below one of the crumbling bridges was the upside-down wreck of a truck that went down as the span was destroyed.
High above, on the west bank, is the city of Lysychansk. The two cities form a single urban area, separated by only a river. Lysychansk, on the high bank, is seen as a safer backup position for Ukrainians fighting in the area.
In Lysychansk, chunks of asphalt, chopped tree branches and other debris from shelling littered the city’s streets, which were mostly empty during this week’s visit. Broken power lines hang down from power poles. In one spot, an unexploded Russian rocket protrudes from the sidewalk.
Across the river, the streets of Sievierodonetsk were at times eerily quiet, at other times filled with gunfire and explosions.
Russo-Ukrainian War: Main developments
Rapid fire from the large guns on armored personnel carriers, sounding like a jackhammer at work, reverberated around the area.
A few miles to the west, another battle raged across a grassland landscape of rolling steppes and small villages as Russian forces attempted to cut supply lines, besiege two cities, and trap machines. Ukrainian fighter there. The two armies continuously shelled each other, at this time the Russian army had the upper hand.
A labyrinth of country roads became the only way for the Ukrainians, and it was very vulnerable to Russian artillery. In a field a few hundred yards from the road on Wednesday, a Ukrainian military vehicle caught fire and gave off a plume of black smoke.
“They are trying to form a circle, to trap all the soldiers inside and destroy them,” said Mariana Bezugla, deputy head of the Security, Defense and Intelligence Committee at the Ukrainian Parliament.
The army did not disclose the number of troops, but Bezugla said several thousand Ukrainian troops are already deployed in the area at risk of encirclement.
Bezugla wore a military uniform and yellow aviator glasses as she drove a truck that was once used as an armored vehicle for a bank. She has been living in the potential besieged area for the past two weeks, she said, working to ensure that military aid to Ukraine is not abused. That issue is likely to become more important as billions of dollars of Western aid arrives.
That weapon is pouring in, but not quickly coming to the front. According to the Polish government, Poland promised tanks and armored vehicles. Norway sent self-propelled artillery vehicles, along with spare parts and ammunition. The United States and its allies sent artillery towed vehicles. And this month, the United States and Britain promised advanced, mobile multiple-missile launchers, which the Ukrainian military said it needed to hit Russian targets far ahead.
But it’s unclear how much of it went where it was needed most and whether it was enough.
“I cannot say that I am satisfied with the progress and quantity of weapons deliveries. Absolutely not,” said Mr. Reznikov, the defense minister. “But at the same time, I am extremely grateful to the countries that have supported us.”
Ms. Bezugla said she is 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.”
Beyond the green wheat fields, one sign of the need for more American military aid is the blown shards of previous support. An American M777 howitzer lost an artillery duel; it was blown up into charred pieces among the craters from Russian artillery.
Report 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.