KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — Just to enter Sievierodonetsk, Ukrainian troopers run a gantlet of Russian artillery shells zeroed in on the one entry route: a bridge affected by the burned husks of automobiles and vehicles that didn’t make it.
And as soon as inside town in japanese Ukraine, the main target of each armies for the previous a number of weeks, Ukrainian troopers battle Russians in back-and forth fight for management of abandoned, destroyed neighborhoods.
Ukraine’s leaders now face a key strategic determination: whether or not to withdraw from the midsize metropolis and take up extra defensible positions, or to stay and threat being boxed in if the bridge is blown up. It displays the alternatives the nation has needed to make for the reason that Russian invasion started, between giving floor to avert demise and destruction within the quick time period, and holding out in opposition to lengthy odds in hopes it should later repay.
In Sievierodonetsk, that calculation has taken on significance past town’s restricted army significance. In remarks to journalists on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelensky referred to Sievierodonetsk and its neighbor throughout the river, Lysychansk, as “dead cities” ravaged by Russian assaults and almost empty of civilians.
And but he insisted there was a compelling purpose to remain and struggle: Ukraine’s position all through the warfare has been that it intends to carry onto its sovereign territory, and never yield it to Moscow.
Retreating now to raised positions on greater floor throughout the Seversky Donets River, after which preventing to retake town later, he stated, can be more durable and carry a better worth in bloodshed than holding on.
“It will be very costly for you to return, in terms of the number of people killed, the number of losses,” Mr. Zelensky stated.
“Our heroes are not giving up positions in Sievierodonetsk,” he added. “Fierce urban combat continues in the city.”
It was a uncommon public rumination by Mr. Zelensky on strategic decision-making within the warfare, offering a window into the objectives of his authorities and its army. Sievierodonetsk is the final main metropolis within the breakaway area of Luhansk that the Russians haven’t taken; capturing it could give them near-total management of that enclave.
There are different components as effectively. Falling again could possibly be demoralizing to Ukraine’s forces. And some Ukrainian troopers stated it’s price drawing out the part of city fight to inflict extra casualties on the already depleted Russian forces, and probably harm their morale.
It was additionally doable Mr. Zelensky was aiding the army with misdirection by signaling one intention whereas quietly pursuing an reverse plan of action.
The authorities has not stated what number of army casualties Ukraine has suffered total for the reason that Russian chief Vladimir V. Putin ordered the invasion in February. But Mr. Zelensky stated final week that within the latest, intense preventing, every day his nation was shedding 60 to 100 troopers killed and 500 wounded. Russia’s protection minister, Sergei Shoigu, stated Tuesday that 6,489 Ukrainian service members had been captured.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry this week estimated civilian casualties at 40,000 killed or wounded, although some authorities officers say the true figures are greater. Ukrainian officers stated Tuesday that ruptured sewer and water pipes within the southern metropolis of Mariupol, seized by Russia after a devastating siege, have created a threat of extreme illness outbreaks that will increase the civilian toll.
The battle for Sievierodonetsk, a part of Luhansk and the broader Donbas area within the east, has raged now for weeks, and a few Ukrainian troopers have questioned why the military has not ordered a tactical retreat.
“They are killing a lot of our guys,” stated a soldier who requested to be recognized solely by his nickname, Kubik, interviewed final week whereas smoking beside a highway within the city of Siversk, a staging space to the west of the preventing. He had lately rotated away from positions close to Sievierodonetsk.
“Let them come forward a little bit, let them think they have captured the town, and then we will meet them beautifully” from the extra advantageous position, he stated.
The metropolis lies on the principally flat, japanese financial institution of the Seversky Donets. The western financial institution, in distinction, rises in a distinguished hill that gives commanding views and firing positions.
Earlier within the warfare, Ukrainian troopers have been surrounded in Mariupol and fought for weeks, ultimately retreating to carry only a tiny pocket of floor in a metal manufacturing facility advanced the place they sheltered in bunkers, earlier than Mr. Zelensky ordered the holdouts to give up quite than be killed.
Ukrainian commanders determined to avert a smaller-scale model of that siege earlier this week in Sviatohirsk, a city mendacity on the low financial institution of the Seversky Donets.
Trying to entice Ukrainian troops within the city, Russian forces had been firing artillery at their solely remaining route throughout the river, a bridge close to an Orthodox monastery that was additionally ceaselessly hit. On Monday, the Ukrainian military pulled again, blew up the bridge and took up positions on the river’s excessive financial institution, Ukrainian officers stated.
Sievierodonetsk was as soon as a sleepy, provincial backwater of about 100,000 residents, with streets lined with poplar timber and a skyline dominated by smokestacks of a fertilizer manufacturing facility.
Now it’s a largely deserted destroy the place battle strains sway typically, with both sides at occasions claiming to have expelled the opposite from a part of town. On Tuesday, Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian army governor of the Luhansk area, stated Russian forces have been once more storming positions. “Combat continues,” he stated.
Russian artillery fireplace into the potential fallback position on the excessive financial institution, the place Lysychansk lies, has additionally been ferocious. Shelling hit a market, a mining academy and a college, Mr. Haidai stated. The strike on the market touched off a hearth that burned via the day Monday. Two civilians have been wounded.
The Ukrainian authorities has been emphasizing the tenuousness of its positions within the battle for Donbas, the mining and farming area now principally managed by Russian forces.
The pivotal entry bridge to Sievierodonetsk is a panorama of destruction, testifying to the issue and threat to Ukraine in holding even some portion of town.
A video recorded by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporters who entered on a resupply run final week confirmed the mayhem on the span: crossing it meant weaving between the burned husks of automobiles and shell craters within the bridge deck.
The particles has piled up over the previous two weeks. In an interview in late May, a soldier at a sandbagged checkpoint on the western fringe of the bridge cautioned that Russian artillery spotters had the span — away from particles on the time — underneath statement and opened fireplace each time a automotive drove over. Two different bridges into town have been destroyed earlier in May.
Mr. Haidai has justified Ukraine’s efforts to carry Sievierodonetsk as partly a matter of symbolic resistance.
“Strategically, the city of Sievierodonetsk is not of great importance,” he stated over the weekend. The excessive reverse riverbank is extra important militarily, he stated. “But politically, Sievierodonetsk is a regional center. Its liberation will lift our morale substantially and demoralize the Russians.”
Still, Mr. Zelensky stated he was open to reconsidering his determination based mostly on developments. Either command — to carry floor or to retreat — had potential downsides, he stated.
“In the first option there is risk, in the second option there is risk,” he stated.
Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting.