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The ‘road of life’ is critical to battered city of Sievierodonetsk

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg


In ordinary times, there’s little that is remarkable about Ukraine’s route T1302, a stretch of pavement that cuts through farmland and small villages and connects two cities in the country’s southeast. With one of those cities now under an onslaught of Russian firepower, the road has taken on far greater significance, as a key to survival.


One regional governor even calls it the “road of life.”


Each day, Russian forces pummel route T1302 with artillery. Their goal is to cut the cord that runs northeast from the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk province for around 43 miles to the besieged city of Sievierodonetsk in the neighboring province of Luhansk and gives supplies a way in and fleeing residents a way out.


The road runs through the city of Lysychansk, which is also under attack, and across the Seversky Donets River before entering Sievierodonetsk on the river’s eastern bank. Russian artillery has pounded the city for weeks, shattering buildings and killing civilians.


“Sievierodonetsk is barely alive,” said Serhiy Haidai, head of Ukraine’s military administration in Luhansk, adding that the city has become the epicenter of the war. He said that one woman died Saturday and 13 high-rise buildings were damaged by shelling.


Russian forces also killed two civilians in fresh fighting on the highway, he said Sunday, adding, in a post on the Telegram messaging app, that Ukrainian forces had successfully repulsed an enemy attack on the “road of life.”


In recent weeks, the battle for Sievierodonetsk has assumed an outsized importance in the four-month war. Russia’s failure to quickly capture the capital, Kyiv, in the early weeks of the conflict, or Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, has forced it to focus on the eastern Donbas region, where it has held significant territory since 2014.


Taking Sievierodonetsk would give Russia full control of Luhansk province, which along with neighboring Donetsk province makes up the Donbas. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, described the battle for Sievierodonetsk as central to President Vladimir Putin of Russia’s military objectives but a spurious goal that could ultimately serve as a turning point.


Putin is “now hurling men and munitions” at Sievierodonetsk “as if taking it would win the war for the Kremlin. He is wrong,” the institute said in a report Sunday.


“When the battle of Sievierodonetsk ends, regardless of which side holds the city, the Russian offensive at the operational and strategic levels will likely have culminated, giving Ukraine the chance to restart its operational-level counter offensives to push Russian forces back,” the report said.


Since Friday, Russian forces have held the Mir hotel, which is in the northeast of Sievierodonetsk, as well as the nearby bus station, giving them a foothold in the city itself. Street battles with Ukrainian forces have ensued, compounding the misery for the city’s civilian population which, for weeks, has been cowering in basements or bomb shelters to avoid relentless shelling.


Pictures posted on Telegram show dozens of shattered apartment blocks.


But analysts say that Moscow’s assault began before the city was fully encircled. The failure to cut off Ukraine’s route T1302 is key to doing so.


Analysts say that Ukrainian forces will likely have to decide at some point to withdraw from Sievierodonetsk in order to preserve their forces, making it all the more imperative that the “road of life” remains open.

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