Updated: Jun 9, 2022
Since Russia began its renewed assault in the east of Ukraine, the defenders have already prepared several hard points. Since the line of occupation that had been there after the 2014 invasion was already hardened, Russian forces would need to maneuver elsewhere. Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics militaries were both stalled, with little to show for the immense casualties they had reportedly suffered.
The city of Sievierodonetsk has recently populated headlines as it is becoming a hotly contested urban center. The second largest city in the partly occupied Luhansk Oblast, it was home to over 100,000 people, a small airport, and a large manufacturing quarter. Since the invasion in February in 2022, it is estimated that less than 15,000 civilians still remain in the city.
From the beginning, Russia had concentrated on this city, using the 4th Guards Tank Division to begin the encirclement. Throughout May, Russian air and artillery forces reduced much of the city, causing both military and civilian casualties. By May 6, the mayor of the city had announced that the Russian and LPR forces had “virtually surrounded” them.
Villages and towns to the north and south of the city slowly fell to the combined Russian and LPR advance. The larger town of Rubizhne to the northwest was taken in a separate battle, with Russian forces pushing out elements of the Ukrainian 128th Mountain Assault Brigade.
However, as Russian forces attempted to cross the Siverskyi Donets River, an estimated entire Battalion Tactical Group was eliminated and the crossing attempt halted. While several other attempts were made, they also failed to make significant headway and accomplish the goal of cutting off the Ukrainian defenders. As the Russian military settled in to bombard Sievierodonetsk with artillery and air strikes, the surrounding towns of Borivske, Kreminna, Novotoshkivske, Nyzhnie, Orikhove, Popasna, Rubizhne, Toshkivka, Troitske, Voronove, Voevodivka and Zolote in Sievierodonetsk region were under their control.
Buildings burning after being destroyed by Russian artillery fire (Ukrainian National Police Photo, CC BY 4.0)
As the battle for the city proper began, Chechen units initiated the assault by taking the Mir hotel on May 27th. Russian regular and LPR militia troops followed suit, coming from Rubizhne in the north and Smolianynove in the east. Thick, heavy, and bloody fighting ensued between the Ukrainian defenders, mostly remnants of the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade and 53rd Mechanized Brigade.
In a matter of 48 hours, Russian forces had made their way into the center of the city. At the end of May, Ukraine confirmed that 70 to 80 percent of the city was under Russian control. In the early days of June, Ukraine had begun to bolster its defenses and simultaneously prove that the city was not cut off from resupply. Russian forces had claimed to have surrounded the city, but the arrival of troops from the International Foreign Legion units.
With the arrival of reinforcements, it is likely the city will become the next major tactical focal point in the war. The city, while still strategic, is an immense propaganda goal as it is the last major city center in the Luhansk Oblast under Kyiv control. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) stated, “Severodonetsk itself is important at this stage in the war primarily because it is the last significant population center in Luhansk Oblast that the Russians do not control. Seizing it will let Moscow declare that it has secured Luhansk Oblast fully but will give Russia no other significant military or economic benefit.”
Ukrainian servicemen walk past a building heavily damaged in a Russian bombing in Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, 28 May, 2022. (AP Photo via Firstpost)
While Ukrainian resistance has been staunch, the casualties for the defenders have been high. According to one text conversation from Niel Hauer on Twitter, a Ukrainian unit of 60 men had been reduced to 4. Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky spoke to American news outlet Newsmax, stating “The situation in the east is very difficult. We are losing 60 to 100 soldiers every day and something like 500 wounded in combat.”
Russia has not had it easy in the fighting either. While their numbers are far more concealed by censorship and propaganda, the assault forces are reportedly taking “fearful casualties.” The same ISW study explained that Russian forces have likely expended the majority of their combat strength attempting to take the city. They state, “Moscow will not be able to recoup large amounts of effective combat power even if it seizes Severdonetsk, because it is expanding that combat power frivolously on taking the city.”
Additionally, Russian supply has reportedly been short and assault elements are likely being restricted from receiving the supplies necessary to carry out more attacks. According to a Ukrainian intelligence report, Russian commanders are refusing to risk further vehicles and supplies. The reports says that the officer corps in charge of taking the city have “forbid drivers to evacuate the wounded and bring food and fuel to the advanced units.” These commanders are reportedly exhausting their men with little to no rest or rotation between combat operations against Ukrainian defenders.
At the time of writing, there are unconfirmed but believable reports coming from the city that Ukrainian forces, bolstered by the Foreign Legion units, are already making attempts to retake part of the city. While success is still unconfirmed as well, it is not outside the realm of tactical possibility that Ukraine may still retake and hold a majority of the city. One this is certain; the city of Sievierodonetsk will cost both sides immensely in both men and equipment before a fate is decided.
Cover photo: Reuters via Financial Times