LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine – With Russia on the brink of encircling Sievierodonetsk, a city crucial to its goal of conquering eastern Ukraine, and with a neighboring city squarely in Moscow’s crosshairs, the question of how reality is on the ground the next phase of the war will shape quietly more urgent Sunday for Ukraine’s western allies.
“The Russians are doing everything they can to shut down Sievierodonetsk,” regional governor Serhiy Haidai told Telegram, the messaging app, on Sunday. “The next two or three days will be important.”
Across the river, Ukrainians trying to hold the Russians in Lysychansk had the advantage of good terrain—but with diminishing weapons to defend it with.
“If there is no help with military equipment, they will of course drive us out,” said Oleksandr Voronenko, 46, a military police officer stationed in Lysychansk. “Because every day the equipment is destroyed. You have to replace it with something new.”
Ukrainian officials have begged NATO allies for faster deliveries of longer-range weapons and the urgently needed replenishment of even more basic supplies, including ammunition.
But as the momentum of the war shifts more decisively in Russia’s favor, Ukraine’s allies, their economies under threat and their resolve tested, will soon be forced to ask questions far more fundamental than any other. kind of weapons they should provide, including whether to put pressure on Ukraine to reach a peace deal with Russia or risk a Russian escalation with more aggressive military support.
“There was always a sense that, as the center of gravity shifted south and east, there would be a potential for greater Russian gains based on greater mass and their existing territorial acquisitions,” said Ian Lesser, a former US official who told head of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund.
“But it raises more serious questions in the longer term about the nature of the conflict, Ukraine’s goals and Western goals related to it,” he said.
While the Ukrainians wait, they suffer terrible losses in the Donbas region, where the battle for Sievierodonetsk is taking place. Ukraine, according to its own estimate, is losing between 100 and 200 people a day as the bloodshed there worsens, partly because of Russia’s material superiority and partly because of Ukraine’s determination to fight on despite the increasingly bleak picture in the east.
Western supplies that have reached the front lines are not as plentiful or as advanced as Ukraine would like. And some never even make it into battle, hit by Russian attacks before they can even be deployed.
Late Saturday, Russian missiles hit a military warehouse in western Ukraine, injuring nearly two dozen people and destroying anti-tank and anti-aircraft missile systems supplied to Ukraine by the United States and the European Union, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
The Ukrainian government has poured troops and resources into its efforts to hold onto Sievierodonetsk, a strategically important industrial city and the last major urban center in the Donbas region of Luhansk that has not yet fallen. Russian forces have destroyed two bridges leading to the center of Sievierodonetsk and shelled the remaining one, a key supply line for Ukrainian troops, the regional governor said.
Now the battle may be about to shift to its sister city, Lysychansk.
On Sunday, from the top of a hill in Lysychansk, it was clear why the early center of the Russian offensive seems easier to defend than other parts of Donbas: it is high up. The vast plains of the region are rich in natural resources, but elevation changes are rare.
That leaves the Ukrainian defenders of the city in an advantageous position.
But it is impossible to defend Lysychansk, a city with a pre-war population of about 100,000 inhabitants, without the supplies needed to keep Ukrainian tanks and artillery supplied with shells and fed and equipped the thousands of troops stationed there. .
This is the challenge the Ukrainian military now faces as Russian forces near the end of their campaign to take neighboring Sievierodonetsk. Even with Sievierodonetsk captured, Ukrainian forces would most likely be able to defend Lysychansk, in part because the Seversky Donets River separates the two cities — unless Russian forces manage to cut off the city’s supply routes.
It was clear on Sunday that the Russians were trying to achieve that by advancing steadily from the southeast.
Plumes of smoke and burning fields where artillery attacks had set fire to the ground enveloped Lysychansk in a semicircle on Sunday afternoon. The frequent booms of incoming and outgoing fires reverberated throughout the city as citizens dragged empty bottles to fill from a jury-rigged firefighters’ water tanker equipped with clean water filters.
Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “in many ways the fate of our Donbas is decided” around Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. But the first city is now virtually surrounded, and as Russian forces continue to advance into the mix of tarmac and bumpy country roads that serve as the only logistical pipeline to the second, Ukrainian officials will have to make a strategic decision: withdraw or encircle Lysychansk as well. .
“We are waiting for reinforcements,” said Mr. Voronenko, the military police, as a group of about 20 residents started walking towards evacuation vans. “It has arrived in part in recent days in the form of artillery. And if we get more, we can probably stop them.”
But nearly four months after Russia invaded, the Ukrainian military is running out of ammunition for its Soviet-era artillery and is not receiving ammunition fast enough, making Lysychansk’s fate even more uncertain.
For European countries, the question of how to defend Ukraine now is both tactical and political – and raises problems closer to home.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Several EU members worry that they have sent too much of their own ammunition to Ukraine and are falling behind in restocking their arsenals. With the bloc’s foreign policy and defense not integrated, European leaders are forced to try and obtain their own military supplies.
European Union officials say they will try to tap into a funding pool of nine billion euros ($9.5 billion) to jointly procure military equipment. seek to allay concerns that military aid to Ukraine has dangerously weakened defense capabilities elsewhere in Europe.
The bloc is also grappling with the broader and politically charged question of how to proceed with Ukraine’s bid to join the European Union. That decision could empower Mr Zelensky in his own country and perhaps give him more political flexibility to negotiate a ceasefire, but it could also lead to Russia making an effort or worse.
During a visit to Kiev on Saturday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said her government would issue an opinion on whether the bloc should grant Ukraine candidate status by the end of the week. Ultimately, however, it is a highly political decision that EU leaders will have to answer at a summit on 23-24 June in Brussels.
For most countries that have been granted candidate status, it takes more than a decade of reforms and negotiations to become full EU members.
Should Ukraine be given the green light, the way forward will most likely be difficult, given the dire situation of the country since the start of the war and the poor governance and corruption that characterized it even before the invasion.
“Whatever the territorial realities on the ground, having that deepening prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration for Ukraine makes a lot of sense,” said Mr Lesser of the German Marshall Fund. “And to the extent that it promotes a growing prospect of an increasingly westernized Ukraine versus a Russia that has drifted into an Asian imperial stance, the political contrast between these two actors will become more stark.”
Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported from Lysychansk, and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels. Natalia Yermak contributed reporting from Lysychansk.