In 2014, Severodonetsk was recaptured from hard-fought pro-Russian separatists by Ukrainian forces. Eight years later, Putin’s soldiers are getting dangerously close to it and again threatening to bring it down. “The Russian troops have advanced to be so close that they can fire mortars” on the city, regional governor Sergei Gaïdaï warned on Wednesday May 25, adding that it “is simply being destroyed” . This industrial city, of around 110,000 inhabitants before the start of the conflict, is at the heart of Russia’s current efforts to seize Donbass, in eastern Ukraine.
And for good reason: the agglomeration of Severodonetsk, which includes the twin city of Lyssytchansk, constitutes the last major Ukrainian strategic lock in the region of Lugansk, coveted, like that of Donetsk, by Moscow. “If the Russians manage to take the city, they will be able to claim the conquest of the whole of Lugansk oblast, underlines General Dominique Trinquand, military expert and former head of the French mission to the UN. Symbolically, this would allow Russia to affirm that it has fulfilled the first part of its objective and to show that it is progressing.” By the end of March, the Russian army had claimed to control 93% of the Lugansk region and 54% of that of Donetsk.
According to a representative of the pro-Russian separatist forces quoted Wednesday by the Russian agency Interfax, Severodonetsk would now be “encircled” on three sides and the last bridge allowing to leave the city would have passed under Russian control. Last Friday, its mayor, Oleksandre Striouk, had indicated that nearly 70% of homes had been destroyed by the bombings and that around 15,000 civilians were still hiding there in anti-bombing shelters and basements. The day before, twelve people had died in the city as a result of Russian strikes.
A fate that is reminiscent of the martyrdom of Mariupol, which fell into the hands of the Russians after three months of fierce fighting and more than 90% destroyed. “Putin’s troops did not hesitate to raze it to take it and I think they will not hesitate to do the same for Severodonetsk, considers General Trinquand. When a city is extremely well defended, it is the only way to get hold of it.” In Mariupol, the Ukrainian authorities had estimated the toll of the fighting at 20,000 dead. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, nearly 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers were also captured there.
Can the Ukrainian forces present in Severodonetsk hope to stand up to the Russian steamroller? “We are not certain that they will show the same combativeness as in Mariupol, insofar as the soldiers are already exhausted by 90 days of war, estimates Olivier Kempf, director of the strategic cabinet La Vigie. Conversely, to avoid letting its troops be surrounded and ultimately losing them, the Ukrainian general staff could also decide to cede the city in order to redeploy its troops further west.
Moscow’s next target is, in fact, hardly in doubt: the two cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk located 80 kilometers further west, and another major Ukrainian bastion in the Donetsk region. “We will continue the special military operation until all objectives have been achieved,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warned on Tuesday, leaving a long-term conflict in the air. “The whole Ukrainian line of defense is in difficulty today, draws up Olivier Kempf. Therefore, kyiv risks having no other choice but to lose men in Severodonetsk in order to save time, or to keep its men, but lose ground.”