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Street battles and fires: Fighting pummels Sievierodonetsk


Members of the Ukrainian regional police force patrolling the city of Lysychansk this week. The nearby city of Sievierodonetsk remains at the center of the fight for the Donbas region.

By Andrew E. Kramer and Marc Santora


From the high ground across the river from the contested city of Sievierodonetsk, the precariousness of the Ukrainian position is clear.


The city is burning. As smoke rises, the boom of artillery thunders unceasingly. The clatter of small-arms fire from urban street battles echoes in the distance. Ukrainian soldiers still in control of Lysychansk, the twin city of Sievierodonetsk, scramble from bunkers to basements, seeking cover as mortars, artillery and rockets pound their position.


This is what a war of attrition looks like — both sides inflicting as much pain as they can while trying to hold their resolve. And in recent days Ukrainian officials have said that while there may be a need to withdraw from certain positions, the battle over the twin cities could prove pivotal in the war for the eastern region known as Donbas.


“In many ways, the fate of our Donbas is being decided there,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Ukraine in his overnight address on Wednesday.


While fierce fighting has raged along basically the same front lines in eastern Ukraine for months — with Russia slowly making limited gains — both the Ukrainians and Russians in recent days have been placing an ever greater symbolic importance on a battle being waged for control over what Zelenskyy called “dead cities” that are mostly empty of people and ravaged by weeks of Russian bombardment.


In the current stage of the war, Russia has directed the bulk of its combat forces in Ukraine to the fight in the east, using its advantage in heavy artillery to obliterate towns and villages and drive out Ukrainians there before moving into the wreckage.


From Zelenskyy to the soldiers crouching in trenches and huddled in basements, the refrain is the same: Long-range Western artillery is not arriving fast enough.


“There is no problem here that we have bad positions or we maneuver badly or choose a good position,” Petro Kuzyk, the commander of a Ukrainian battalion fighting in the east, said on national Ukrainian television. “The problem is that we are catastrophically short of artillery.”


In the fight for Sievierodonetsk, the Ukrainians threw a wrinkle into the plans by appearing to withdraw from the city last week, only to then launch a counterattack. In close urban combat, Ukrainian soldiers feel that they have the advantage and can inflict heavy losses on the Russians.


Fighting continued to rage in Sievierodonetsk on Thursday even as the Ukrainian military said Russia was looking for weaknesses in its defense.


While Russian forces have struggled to cross the river separating Lysychansk from Sievierodonetsk, they are sending in what the Ukrainians call “diversionary sabotage groups” of commandos to target Ukrainian supply lines. Russian forces are also looking for ways to flank the forces.


The fighting for a key highway leading to Lysychansk from the south — which until recently was a key lifeline for getting humanitarian aid into the two cities — is the scene of fierce fighting. The Ukrainians moving in and out of the area now use back roads.

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