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

Smoke rises during shelling of the city of Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine on May 21. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)
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The battle for Severodonetsk — one of the last big cities under Ukrainian control in a key eastern province — is emerging as a focal point in Russia’s war.

Russian troops, bombarding the area constantly, are using “scorched earth” tactics in Severodonetsk as it seeks to capture the Luhansk region, its governor said Sunday, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that fighting in the east is becoming increasingly bloody, with up to 100 Ukrainian soldiers killed each day.

“The situation here is difficult because the Russian army has now thrown all [its] forces at capturing the Luhansk region," Serhiy Haidai said Monday, in an update to Ukrainian station Espreso TV.

But even if they were to capture just Severodonetsk, Haidai said, "they would also present it as a huge victory.”

Russia is seeking to encircle Severodonetsk, which had a prewar population of about 100,000, now that a protracted battle for the port city of Mariupol has ended. Russia is attempting to gain control of Donbas, which includes the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russian forces, who failed to take Kyiv and were pushed back in the region near the second-largest city of Kharkiv, “need a win,” said Matthew Schmidt, associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. They are “throwing everything that they have at it," he added.

Failing in other major efforts, he said, “they’re down to winning these tactical battles.”

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He said Moscow has struggled with combat effectiveness, taking enormous losses of officers and stitching together “Frankenstein” groups made up of troops from different units. Many are exhausted.

Because Russia lacks officers capable of leading effective offensives against Ukraine, they are trying to get such a victory in Severodonetsk by overwhelming the Ukrainians with firepower. Schmidt said the Russians are “bludgeoning their way through” in a way that could have dire consequences for civilians, as in Mariupol.

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

“Every day they are trying to break the line of defense,” Haidai said in a Ukrainian media interview that he posted to his Telegram channel Sunday. “Round-the-clock there is shelling, and unfortunately the Russian army chose the scorched earth tactic against the city of Severodonetsk: They are simply systematically destroying the city. Everywhere is being shelled constantly.”

Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, said the city is becoming “a new Mariupol.”

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

He said about 10,000 people remain in Severodonetsk, about one-tenth of its prewar population, and that most “are almost constantly in bomb shelters.” Haidai added Monday that evacuation efforts continue and their “one surviving bridge” is under attack but still “whole.”

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

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

Even a win could come with costly troop casualties and equipment losses. Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, could then fall back to a safe, offensive position from which they could keep the pressure on Russia, Schmidt said.

A journalist from Channel 24 asked Haidai whether 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 gets ‘calmed down’ — meaning they will stop where they get stopped.”

Annabelle Chapman and Zina Pozen contributed to this report.