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Why Severodonetsk is key to Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine

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The battle for Severodonetsk – one of the last major cities under Ukrainian control in a key eastern province – is becoming a focal point of Russia’s war.

Russian troops, constantly bombarding the region, are using “scorched earth” tactics in Severodonetsk as it seeks to seize the Luhansk region, its governor said on Sunday, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that the fighting in the east was getting bloodier and bloodier, with up to 100 Ukrainian soldiers killed every day.

“The situation here is difficult because the Russian army has now thrown everything [its] capture forces from the Luhansk region,” Serhiy Haidai said Monday, in an update to Ukraine’s Espreso TV.

But even if they only captured Severodonetsk, Haidai said, “they would also present it as a huge victory.”

Russia is seeking to encircle Severodonetsk, which had a population of around 100,000 before the war, now that a long battle for the port city of Mariupol is over. Russia is trying to take control of Donbass, which includes the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russian forces, which failed to take Kyiv and were pushed back to the area near the second-largest city of Kharkiv, “need a victory,” said Matthew Schmidt, associate professor of national security and in political science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. . They “throw everything they have into it,” he added.

Failing in other major efforts, he said, “they have to win these tactical battles.”

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He said Moscow was struggling with combat effectiveness, suffering huge officer casualties and assembling “Frankenstein” groups made up of troops from different units. Many are exhausted.

Because Russia lacked officers capable of carrying out effective offensives against Ukraine, it attempted to achieve such a victory at Severodonetsk by overwhelming the Ukrainians with firepower. Schmidt said the Russians were “finding their way” in a way that could have disastrous consequences for civilians, like in Mariupol.

“They’re just shelling the Ukrainians with artillery,” Schmidt said.

“Every day they try to break the line of defense,” Haidai said in an interview with Ukrainian media he posted on his Telegram channel on Sunday. “There is shelling 24 hours a day, and unfortunately the Russian army has chosen scorched earth tactics against the city of Severodonetsk: they are simply systematically destroying the city. Everywhere is constantly bombarded.

Lyudmila Denisova, the Ukrainian human rights ombudsman, said the city was becoming “a new Mariupol”.

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Russian troops destroyed a bridge to Severodonetsk on Saturday, making it harder to evacuate people and bring in supplies. Haidai said on Sunday, “If they destroy one more bridge, the city will be completely cut off, unfortunately.”

He said there were about 10,000 people left in Severodonetsk, about a tenth of its pre-war population, and most “are almost constantly in bomb shelters”. Haidai added on Monday that evacuation efforts are continuing and their “only surviving bridge” is under attack but still “entire.”

Footage released on May 22 showed that the Pavlograd Bridge connecting Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, Ukraine, had been destroyed during the fighting in Luhansk. (Video: Sergey Haidai via Storyful)

For forces in Moscow, he said, the stakes are high. A loss would be “devastating to their morale and strategic position”.

Even a victory could result in costly troop losses and equipment losses. Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, could then retreat to a safe offensive position from which to keep pressure on Russia, Schmidt said.

A Channel 24 reporter asked Haidai if Russian troops would “calm down if their attack on Severodonetsk succeeds”.

“No, of course not,” Haidai said Sunday. “The Russian army only calms down where it is ‘calmed down’ – which means it will stop where it is stopped.”

Annabelle Chapman and Zina Pozen contributed to this report.

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