Battle for control of the Donbas reaches critical moment
By Dan Bilefsky
The desperate struggle by Ukraine to hold on to its territory in the eastern Donbas region reached a critical point Tuesday as Ukrainian and Russian soldiers clashed in street battles in the city of Sievierodonetsk and the last bridge linking the city with Ukrainian-controlled territory to the west was destroyed.
After weeks of intense fighting, Russia appeared closer than ever to claiming Sievierodonetsk, potentially handing President Vladimir Putin a substantial victory he can present to the Russian people. It could also help him come a step closer to his aim of taking complete control of the strategically important Donbas region, his primary military goal after his forces failed to seize the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and other big cities.
Russian forces and their separatist allies control an estimated 80-90% of the Donbas, according to Ukrainian officials. Donbas, which comprises the territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, makes up about 9% of Ukraine’s land but is an important industrial and cultural region for the country.
For eight years, it has also been the front line of a battle between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists who had seized much of the region. Sievierodonetsk is the biggest city in Luhansk province not yet under Moscow’s control.
With hundreds of civilians trapped in the city under unrelenting bombardment, the destruction of the bridge could also create an intensifying humanitarian crisis, since Ukrainian forces are now hobbled in their ability to retreat or evacuate civilians and the wounded. Ukrainian officials said Russian forces have also been making targeted attacks on the city’s Azot chemical plant, where local officials say about 500 civilians have been sheltering.
With the prospect of Sievierodonetsk falling to Russia and increasingly urgent pleas by Ukraine to the West for longer-range weapons, the situation was also raising concerns among some Western officials about whether President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine has a viable strategy to win the war.
Ukraine has been losing as many as 200 soldiers a day in street-by-street fight in “dead cities” like Sievierodonetsk in a last-ditch bid to try to inflict as many casualties as possible on Russia. But a war of attrition favors Russia, which has a much larger military. Zelenskyy has acknowledged that Russia has far more troops to lose and that Putin views them as “cannon fodder.”
As Ukrainian officials insist that they need more long-range weapons from the West and that the heavy arms already promised to them have been slow to arrive, the grinding war is also testing the political will in Europe and the United States as the war exacerbates global economic troubles.
For weeks, Russian forces have assaulted Sievierodonetsk from the east, north and south, pounding it with artillery in an attempt to drive Ukrainian troops toward the river to the west. In fierce street fighting, they took a hotel and bus station in the northeast of the city, Ukrainian officials said, and have then fought their way toward the center.
The mayor of Sievierodonetsk, Oleksandr Stryuk, said on national television that the situation was “very difficult.” “Russian troops are trying to storm the city, but the military is holding firm,” he said, adding that despite the lack of bridges, civilian evacuations were still being carried out.
On Tuesday, Russia’s ministry of defense offered to allow a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from the city’s Azot chemical plant. Moscow has made similar offers in the past in other parts of the country that have not come to fruition. Nevertheless, such an arrangement was reached to allow civilians to leave a steel plant in the southern port of Mariupol where the last Ukrainian defenders of the city were holding out.