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After Russia breaks through front line, Ukrainian troops in key city brace for onslaught


Mourners grieve during the funeral for fallen soldier Artemiy Dymyd at Lychakiv cemetery in Lviv, Ukraine on June 21, 2022.

By Thomas Gibbons-Neff


After weeks of artillery barrages, airstrikes and tank battles, Russian forces appear to have broken through a key part of Ukraine’s defensive line in the east, signaling the next step of their campaign to capture the last two major cities in the mineral-rich province of Luhansk.


The successful Russian advance is a watershed moment for Ukraine’s defense of the cities of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk. Either Ukraine’s forces will stay and defend, risking severed supply lines and the encirclement of thousands of troops, or they will withdraw, forfeiting the last urban centers of a region that makes up a large part of the Donbas, which Moscow has pledged to seize.


The two cities are split by the Siversky Donets River. Russian forces now control most of Sievierodonetsk, save a few pockets of resistance, and Ukrainian forces hold Lysychansk, where the hills bristle with their artillery.


The cities are part of a 30-mile-wide pocket where Ukrainian troops are holding out, gradually squeezed by Russian forces. If the pocket collapses and Lysychansk falls, the Russians will have taken all of Luhansk, and will be able to reconsolidate and prepare to focus their offensive on the neighboring Donetsk region.


Troops in Lysychansk are bracing for an onslaught. “The last city is Lysychansk, and it will be very hard here, a lot of good guys will die,” said one Ukrainian soldier defending the city, who gave only his first name, Sergiy, for security reasons.


In recent days, Ukrainian tanks and other equipment have flooded into Lysychansk, which sits on higher ground, dominating nearby Sievierodonetsk and the rolling fields beyond. Ukrainian troops have dug new trenches on street corners and erected new roadblocks to create chokepoints for the Russian troops that are expected to arrive in the coming days and weeks.


Sergiy’s acknowledgment that a final battle for Lysychansk is near came as regional officials announced Wednesday that Russian troops had overrun three small towns to the southeast of the city.


The towns — Mirna Dolina, Pidlisne and Toshkivka — are little more than postage stamps in the country’s vast eastern expanse. But their collapse within days of one another marks a significant breach in Ukraine’s front line, bringing Russian forces to the doorstep of Lysychansk and threatening the few supply routes into the city.


“The surprising aspect here is that Ukraine has chosen to reinforce as Russian forces inch closer to the city,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research group in Virginia. “Both cities, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk could fall in the near term. However, Russia may not have the forces to exploit this localized offensive, and will find itself in a grinding fight against yet another set of Ukrainian defensive lines.”


Since the war began four months ago, Ukrainian commanders have often chosen to stand and fight rather than retreat, raising the cost of the invasion for Russia in men and equipment and buying time for more heavy arms from Ukraine’s allies to arrive. In the port city of Mariupol, Ukrainian forces held out for weeks in a steel mill complex after the rest of the city had fallen.


Russia’s forces are trying to flank the two cities on the Siversky Donets River from the east and west, Ukrainian military officials said.


In the west, Russian troops have positioned themselves to build pontoon bridges near the town of Siversk, a strategic hub for Ukrainian supply routes into Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk, according to those officials. And in the east, Russian reconnaissance units have tried to scout Ukrainian artillery positions in an attempt to destroy them and seize high ground behind Lysychansk.


“We are being pressed closer to the city,” said Oleksandr Voronenko, a military police officer stationed in Lysychansk. “As long as there is a corridor through Siversk to Lysychansk, we will stand.”

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