LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine – To move around the city, Ukrainian soldiers accelerate to breakneck speeds in their SUVs, screeching around corners, zipping into courtyards, piling up and running for cover.
“They see us and open fire,” Colonel Yuriy Vashchuk said of the need to act quickly or become a vulnerable target for Russian artillery. “There is no place in this city that is safe.”
He walked on the high ground of Lysychansk, across the river from Sievierodonetsk, the site of the fiercest fighting in eastern Ukraine. In preparation, he placed a hand grenade in the cup holder between the front seats of his vehicle. As we drove, a box of pistol ammunition slid back and forth across the dashboard.
There are signs of Ukraine’s weak military positions everywhere: on the hills overlooking Sievierodonetsk, the smoke from a dozen fires bears witness to weeks of urban fighting. The single supply route to the west is littered with burnt vehicles, hit by Russian artillery.
The ringing, metallic explosions of incoming grenades resound every few minutes.
These two cities, separated by the Seversky Donets River, have become the focal point of battle in the east, although weeks of bombing have displaced most of the civilians, and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky recently called them “dead cities.”
Russia’s goal is clear: it wants to capture the cities, even if that means bulldozing them, and continue its march westward.
However, Ukraine’s strategy there remains unclear. Analysts say Sievierodonetsk, with its empty streets and hollowed-out buildings, has limited military significance, and in recent days Mr. Zelensky discussed both the benefits of withdrawal and its longer-term risks.
On Wednesday night, he returned to stress its importance, calling the fighting there crucial to the wider battle for the region. “In many ways, the fate of our Donbas is decided there,” he said in his overnight address to the nation.
“We are defending our positions, inflicting significant casualties on the enemy,” said Mr. Zelensky. “This is a very fierce battle, very difficult. Probably one of the hardest during this war.”
Still, mixed signals from the government resurfaced on Thursday as Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksiy Reznikov made a desperate plea for more powerful weapons. “We have proved that, unlike many others, we are not afraid of the Kremlin,” he said. “But as a country, we cannot afford to lose our best sons and daughters.”
He warned that as many as 100 Ukrainian soldiers were being killed every day.
Indeed, the battles on the plains in eastern Ukraine have become a race between Russia’s tactics to make slow, methodical advances that gain ground even as they smash cities and kill untold numbers, and delivery — far too slow, they say. the Ukrainians – of powerful western weapons that were needed to stop the invaders.
The Ukrainian military and government are now making no secret of the challenges they face in the east, three and a half months after Russia invaded. Their daily updates highlighting real-world setbacks are atypically fair by military news agency standards, a tactic perhaps intended to add a sense of urgency to their daily calls for heavy Western weapons.
Russia is also moving swiftly to punish Ukrainian soldiers captured on the battlefield.
On Thursday, two Britons and a Moroccan who fought for the Ukrainian army were sentenced to death by a court in a Russian-occupied region of eastern Ukraine after they were accused of being mercenaries, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.
The death sentences for the men — Aiden Aslin, 28, and Shaun Pinner, 48, of Britain and Brahim Saadoun of Morocco — alarmed human rights defenders and raised questions about protecting thousands of foreign-born fighters serving in Ukraine, some of whom some have been captured.
In Russia, investigators on Thursday said they had opened 1,100 cases of possible “crimes against peace” committed by imprisoned Ukrainian soldiers, potentially paving the way for a mass show trial.
The fighting in Sievierodonetsk has boiled down to bloc-to-block fighting, although Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Mr Zelensky, suggested on Thursday that Russia may have partially withdrawn to clear the battlefield for further artillery bombardments.
Sievierodonetsk is located on the largely flat eastern bank of the river, and the Ukrainian armed forces’ only supply line is a partially blocked bridge. Two other bridges were blown up earlier in the fighting. On the floodplain of the river below one of the destroyed bridges lies the upside-down wreckage of a truck that plunged down when the span was destroyed.
On the high, western shore is the city of Lysychansk. The two cities form one metropolitan area, separated only by the river. Lysychansk, on the high bank, is seen as a more defensible fall-back position for the Ukrainians fighting in this area.
In Lysychansk, chunks of asphalt, severed tree branches and other debris from shelling have littered the city’s streets, which were otherwise mostly empty this week. Broken power lines hang from poles. In one spot, an unexploded Russian missile protrudes from a sidewalk.
Across the river, the streets in Sievierodonetsk were eerily quiet at times, then a cacophony of gunfire and explosions.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Rapid fire from the large-caliber cannons on armored personnel carriers, sounded like a jackhammer at work, echoed through the area.
A few miles to the west, another battle rages across a bucolic landscape of rolling steppes and small villages as Russian forces attempt to cut off the supply lines, encircling the two towns and trapping Ukrainian fighters there. The two armies are constantly shelling each other with artillery, with the Russians gaining the upper hand for the time being.
A maze of rural roads is now the only route for the Ukrainians, and it is vulnerable to Russian artillery. In a field a few hundred meters from a road, a Ukrainian military vehicle burned down on Wednesday, setting off a plume of black smoke.
“They are trying to make a circle, lock up all the soldiers in it and destroy them,” said Mariana Bezugla, deputy head of the Security, Defense and Intelligence Committee in the Ukrainian parliament.
The army is not disclosing troop numbers, but Ms Bezugla said several thousand Ukrainian soldiers have now been deployed in the area at risk of being surrounded.
Mrs. Bezugla wears a military uniform and gold-colored aviator goggles as she drives around in a van that was once used as an armored vehicle for a bank. She has been living in the potential encirclement zone for the past two weeks, she said, to ensure military aid to Ukraine is not misused. That issue is likely to grow in importance as billions of dollars in Western aid roll in.
Those weapons are pouring in, but not reaching the front anytime soon. Poland has promised tanks and armored vehicles, according to the Polish government. Norway has sent self-propelled howitzers along with spare parts and ammunition. The United States and allies sent towed howitzers. And this month, the United States and Britain pledged advanced, mobile multi-missile launchers, which the Ukrainian military has told it to hit Russian targets far from the front.
But it’s unclear how much of it has arrived where it’s most needed, and whether it will be enough.
“I can’t say I’m happy with the pace and the amount of weapons stocks. Absolutely not,” said Mr Reznikov, the defense minister. “But at the same time, I am extremely grateful to the countries that support us.”
Mrs. Bezugla said she was grateful too. “But for me it’s hard to understand why help is given in doses, just enough to survive, but not enough to win,” she said. “It worries me. Our people die here every day.”
In a field of green wheat shoots, a sign of the need for additional U.S. military aid was the blown-up debris from previous aid. An American M777 howitzer had lost an artillery duel; it was blasted into several blackened, charred pieces amid craters of Russian artillery.
Reporting contributed by Oleksandr Chubko from Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Marc Santora from Warsaw, Michael Levenson from New York, Dan Bilefsky from Montreal, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia and Valerie Hopkins from Chernihiv, Ukraine.