Why Severodonetsk is the key to Russia’s war before Ukraine

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The battle for Severodonetsk – one of the last major Ukrainian-controlled cities in the main eastern province – is emerging as a focal point of the Russian war.

The head of the Luhansk region says Russian troops, constantly bombing the area, are using “scorched earth” tactics in Severodonetsk. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that the war in the past was becoming increasingly bloody, with 100 Ukrainian soldiers being killed every day.

Russia wants to lay siege to Severodonetsk, where the pre-war population was about 100,000, now a long battle is over for the port city of Mariupol. Russia is trying to gain control of Donbass, which includes the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Matthew Schmidt, an associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, said Russian forces were “throwing away everything they have.”

After failing in other big efforts, he said, “they are going to win this strategic battle.”

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He said Moscow had fought the war effectively, inflicted heavy casualties on officers and consolidated “Frankenstein” groups of soldiers from different units. Many are exhausted.

Russian forces “need a victory,” Schmidt said. Because they lack officers capable of conducting effective attacks against Ukraine, they are trying to achieve such a victory in Severodonets by defeating the Ukrainians with firepower. Schmidt said the Russians were “going through their path” in a way that could have serious consequences for civilians, such as Mariupol.

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

Russian troops are working to “remove Severodonetsk from the face of the earth”, including descending on city streets and firing on buildings, Luhansk’s regional governor Serhi Haidai said this weekend. The Washington Post could not independently verify the claims.

“Every day they try to break the defense line,” Haidai said in a Ukrainian media interview, which he posted on his Telegram channel on Sunday. “Round-the-clock shelling is going on, and unfortunately the Russian army has chosen the tactical ground against the city of Severodonetsk: they are only systematically destroying the city. There are constant shootings.

Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova says the city is becoming “a new marijuana”.

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

He said there were about 10,000 people left in Severodonets, about one-tenth of the pre-war population, and that most were “almost constantly bombed shelters.”

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

Even a victory can come with costly military casualties and equipment damage. Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, could then return to a safe, offensive position from which they could put pressure on Russia, Schmidt said.

Haidai, a Channel 24 reporter, was asked if the Russian troops would “calm down” if their attack on Severodonets was successful.

“No, of course not,” Haidai said Sunday. “The Russian military is calm only where it is ‘calm’ – which means it will stop wherever it stops.”

Gina Posen contributed to this report.

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