Ukraine-Russia War: Breaking News – The New York Times
KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — Just to enter Sievierodonetsk, Ukrainian soldiers pass through a handrail of Russian artillery shells aimed at the only route of access: a bridge littered with the burned hulls of cars and trucks that didn’t make it.
And once in the eastern Ukrainian city that has been the focus of both armies in recent weeks, Ukrainian soldiers are fighting back-and-forth Russians for control of deserted, devastated neighborhoods.
Ukraine’s leaders now face an important strategic choice: whether to withdraw from the mid-sized city and take up more defensible positions, or remain and risk being surrounded if the bridge is blown up. It reflects the choices the country has had to make since the beginning of the Russian invasion, between giving in to avert death and destruction in the short-term and resisting long-term adversity in the hope that it will pay off later.
In Seyerodonetsk, this calculation has gained importance beyond the city’s limited military importance. In a remark to journalists on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described Sievierodonetsk and its neighbor across the river, Lysyhansk, as “dead cities” devastated by Russian attacks and almost deserted.
And yet he insisted that there was a compelling reason to stay and fight: Ukraine’s position throughout the war was that it intends to hold on to its sovereign territory and not cede it to Moscow.
Retreating now to better positions on higher ground across the Seversky-Donets River and then later fighting to retake the city is more difficult and involves more bloodshed than persevering.
“It will be very costly for you to return in terms of the number of people killed and the number of casualties,” Mr Zelensky said.
“Our heroes are not giving up their positions in Sieverodonetsk,” he added. “The fierce urban struggle continues in the city.”
It was a rare public musing by Mr. Zelensky on strategic wartime decision-making that offered a glimpse into the goals of his government and its military. Sievierodonetsk is the last major city in the breakaway Luhansk region that the Russians did not take; conquering them would give them near-total control of this enclave.
There are other factors too. A withdrawal could be demoralizing for Ukrainian forces. And some Ukrainian soldiers said it made sense to delay the phase of the urban combat in order to inflict further casualties on already exhausted Russian forces and potentially damage their morale.
It was also possible that Mr. Zelensky aided the military in misdirection by signaling one intent while tacitly pursuing an opposite course of action.
The government has not said how many total military casualties Ukraine has suffered since Russian leader Vladimir V. Putin ordered the invasion in February. But Mr Zelensky said last week that his country was losing 60 to 100 soldiers killed and 500 wounded every day in recent intense fighting. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that 6,489 Ukrainian military personnel had been arrested.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry this week put the number of civilian casualties at 40,000 dead or wounded, although some government officials say the true numbers are higher. Ukrainian officials said on Tuesday that ruptured sewage and water mains in the southern city of Mariupol, seized by Russia after a devastating siege, have created a risk of serious outbreaks of disease that would increase civilian casualties.
The battle for Sievierodonetsk, part of Luhansk and the wider Donbass region to the east, has been raging for weeks now, and some Ukrainian soldiers have questioned why the army has not ordered a tactical withdrawal.
“They are killing a lot of our people,” said one soldier, who asked to be identified by just his nickname, Kubik, who was interviewed last week smoking beside a street in the city of Siversk, a staging area west of the fighting. He had recently moved away from positions near Sievierodonetsk.
“Let them come forward a bit, let them think they’ve taken the city, and then we’ll hit them beautifully,” he said from the more advantageous position.
The city lies on the mostly flat, eastern bank of the Seversky Donets. The western shore, on the other hand, rises on a prominent hill that offers impressive views and firing positions.
At the beginning of the war, Ukrainian soldiers were surrounded in Mariupol and fought for weeks, finally retreating to hold only a tiny piece of land in a steel factory complex, where they took shelter in bunkers before Mr. Zelensky ordered the defenders to surrender, instead of being killed .
Ukrainian commanders earlier this week decided to avert a smaller version of that siege in Svyatohirsk, a town on the low bank of the Seversky Donets.
In an attempt to capture Ukrainian troops in the city, Russian forces had fired artillery at their only remaining route across the river, a bridge near an Orthodox monastery, which was also frequently hit. On Monday, the Ukrainian army retreated, blew up the bridge and took up positions on the high banks of the river, Ukrainian officials said.
Sievierodonetsk was once a sleepy provincial town of about 100,000, with streets lined with poplar trees and a skyline dominated by the chimneys of a fertilizer plant.
Now it’s a largely abandoned ruin where battle lines often falter, with each side sometimes claiming to have driven the other out of part of the city. On Tuesday, Serhiy Haidai, Ukraine’s military governor of the Lugansk region, said Russian forces were again storming positions. “The fight goes on,” he said.
The Russian artillery fire on the potential fallback position on the high bank where Lysychansk is located was also ferocious. The shelling hit a market, a mining academy and a school, Mr Haidai said. The strike at the market sparked a fire that burned throughout Monday. Two civilians were injured.
The Ukrainian government has stressed the weakness of its positions in the battle for Donbass, the mining and farming region now mostly controlled by Russian forces.
The central access bridge to Seyerodonetsk is a panorama of destruction, testament to the difficulty and risk for Ukraine of holding even part of the city.
Video captured by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporters attending a resupply drive last week showed the chaos on the span: crossing it meant wriggling between the burned hulls of cars and shell craters in the bridge deck.
The debris has piled up over the past two weeks. In an interview in late May, a soldier at a sandbagged checkpoint on the western edge of the bridge warned that Russian artillery scouts would watch the span — clear of debris at the time — and open fire if a car drove by. Two other bridges into the city were destroyed in early May.
Mr Haidai has partly justified Ukraine’s efforts to hold Sievierodonetsk with symbolic resistance.
“Strategically, the city of Sievjerodonetsk is not of great importance,” he said at the weekend. The high river bank opposite was more militarily significant, he said. “But politically, Sievierodonetsk is a regional center. His liberation will greatly boost our morale and demoralize Russians.”
Still, Mr Zelensky said he was open to reconsidering his decision based on developments. Both orders – to hold ground or withdraw – had potential downsides, he said.
“There is a risk with the first option, there is a risk with the second option,” he said.
Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting.