LYSICHANSK, Ukraine. All the bridges connecting the Ukrainian sister cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk have been destroyed, street fighting rages, leaving thousands of civilians trapped in one of the deadliest battles of the war.
Russia has targeted the area since the start of its full-scale invasion in February, but as it narrowed its offensive to the resource-rich eastern region of Donbass, Russian commanders are steadily redirecting more and more forces to a small patch of land in and around Severodonetsk.
The city of Severodonetsk is still estimated to be home to about 10,000 people, with several hundred believed to have taken refuge in bunkers under a chemical plant that is under almost constant bombardment. The Ukrainian government said this week that any large-scale evacuation of the city is now impossible. Russia promised to set up a humanitarian corridor, but previous claims fell short, and Russian forces opened fire on areas where fleeing civilians had gathered.
Fierce fighting continued on Thursday in Lisichansk and Severodonetsk. On Thursday morning, a Russian airstrike hit the center of Lysychansk, killing at least one person, local authorities said.
For most of the day, Russian and Ukrainian artillery fired from opposite banks of the Seversky Donets River, which separates the two cities. A group of Ukrainian soldiers, taking a break from fighting in the basement of a Soviet-style apartment, asked The New York Times reporters when Western rocket artillery systems would arrive and said they needed more.
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On the front lines, as Russian artillery bombards the city of Lisichansk, “one hour feels like a full day,” one soldier said.
In Severodonetsk, the people in the ruined city are now largely on their own. Those who managed to get out recently describe heartbreaking scenes.
The head of the Lugansk military administration, Sergei Gaidai, said that now the shelling has become so intense that “people can no longer stand in shelters – their psychological state is at the limit.”
According to him, Russia does not control the city, and fierce fighting is going on from house to house. At the same time, Russian troops continue to devastate villages around the city, Mr. Haidai said.
“The destruction of the residential sector is catastrophic,” he said. Residents of the city report lack of food and clean water, describing scenes similar to those played out in Mariupol and many other cities on the eastern front over the past four months.
An additional 60,000 civilians are believed to still reside in Ukrainian-controlled Lysichansk. But constant Russian bombing of the area, as Russia attempts to encircle Ukrainian forces there, has made any large-scale evacuation extremely difficult.
Most of the estimated 50,000-60,000 artillery shells fired by Russia every day are concentrated in this last patch of Ukrainian-controlled Luhansk region.
The convoy required for a large-scale evacuation would likely require coordination between Russia and Ukraine under the control of international mediators. There have been no public statements that such a plan is being discussed. In Lisichansk, volunteers evacuate dozens of civilians by car every day.
Ukraine’s top military leader Valeriy Zaluzhny said in a statement that Russia has focused its efforts on the battle. In addition to continuous shelling, he said, Moscow is directing airstrikes and using multiple rocket launchers to destroy everything in its path. Russian troops are trying to advance on nine separate fronts from the north, east and south.
Despite the superiority of the Russian arsenal, the Ukrainians managed to keep Moscow’s forces from completing the encirclement of the area. General Zaluzny said they would continue to fight.
Severodonetsk, according to him, is a key point in the defensive system of the Lugansk region. “The city can be seen as nothing more than this,” he said.