Russian Troops Move to Encircle Strategic City in Eastern Ukraine

The destroyed bridge connecting the city of Lysychansk with the city of Severodonetsk in the eastern Ukranian region of Donbas. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

KYIV (Los Angeles Times/TNS) — As the conflict in Ukraine enters its fourth month, Russian troops appear to be on the cusp of a breakthrough in the disputed Donbas region, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warning of difficult weeks ahead and accusing Moscow of waging “total war” against his country.

Russian forces have launched a concerted campaign to encircle Severodonetsk — the last major city in Luhansk province and easternmost point of the Donbas still under Ukrainian control — along with its sister city, Lysychansk, just to the south. If successful, the move would trap Ukrainian troops defending the area and open Russia’s path to Kramatorsk, the Ukrainian government’s main administrative and military node in the east.

By Tuesday morning, after days of withering artillery duels along the eastern front, Russian troops were reported to have seized portions of Lyman, a town roughly 30 miles west of Severodonetsk, and blitzed into the village of Zolote, about nine miles south of Lysychansk. Those attacks and a Russian stab from north of Severodonetsk form a three-pronged offensive to take the city.

“The intensity of fire on Severodonetsk has increased by multiple times — they are simply destroying the city,” Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said in a media interview. He echoed Zelensky’s overnight address to the nation, which accused Russian forces of “trying to destroy all living things” in the east.

“Literally. Nobody destroyed Donbas as the Russian military does now,” Zelensky said.

At the same time, authorities in Mariupol, which Russia now controls in its most significant gain of the war, announced the gruesome discovery of 200 bodies in the basement of a collapsed apartment building, according to The Associated Press. The decimated southern city has endured some of the worst suffering of the war.

Zelensky also cited a Russian missile barrage that struck the village of Desna last week in northern Ukraine, killing 87 people in one of the war’s deadliest single attacks, as he appealed for more arms from the U.S. and other supportive nations.

“Every time we tell our partners that we need modern anti-missile weapons, modern combat aircraft, we are not just making a formal request,” he said. “We say that our request is the real lives of many people who would not have died if we had received all the weapons we are seeking.”

Other Ukrainian officials also urged a speedup in arms deliveries.

Meanwhile, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Tuesday that Russian airstrikes destroyed a depot in the Donbas used to store U.S.-produced M777 Howitzer artillery shells. Washington has fast-tracked deliveries of the artillery in recent weeks as part of a larger lend-lease program to Ukraine aimed at countering Russia’s invasion.

Smoke and dirt ascends after a strike at a factory in the city of Soledar at the eastern Ukranian region of Donbas on Tuesday, the 90th day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Even amid the deteriorating military situation in the east, signs of prewar life were returning to other parts of Ukraine. In Kharkiv, the target of a recently repulsed Russian onslaught that forced authorities to turn the northeastern city’s metro system into a bomb shelter, subways were running again, Mayor Igor Terekhov said on his official Telegram channel.

A sense of normality has also come to the capital, Kyiv, just two months after Russian tanks were massing on its outskirts. Ukrainian forces managed to keep them out, forcing Moscow to withdraw and redeploy its troops to the east, where they are now gaining ground.

Despite the military setbacks in the Donbas, a feeling of triumph seems prevalent in Kyiv as those who fled the city in the early days of the war pour back in. In recent days, residents have come out in large numbers to view a public war trophy: the remnants of destroyed Russian tanks and other Russian war paraphernalia put on display in central St. Michael’s Square.

In a carnival-like atmosphere, people take selfies with the ruined materiel and hoist children and pets atop the charred tanks. Signs at the site implore other nations to aid Ukraine in its bid to drive back its behemoth neighbor.

“It’s a bit scary, the smell of death,” said Anna Ursu, 22, who came to see the battered tanks Tuesday with her 2-year-old daughter. “At the same time, there is joy that these were destroyed by our defenders. It is because of them that we are able to be here looking at this.”

Accompanying her was a friend, Nadia Reznikova, 23, originally from the battered Luhansk province, which with Donetsk province makes up the Donbas.

“Yes, the battle in the east is hard, but I believe Ukraine will triumph, especially if NATO closes the skies,” said Reznikova, referring to a common wish among Ukrainians — that the U.S.-led alliance impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine to thwart Russian air power.

President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have rejected such a move, fearing it would lead to direct fighting between NATO and Russian forces and the possibility of nuclear war.

“We can only hope,” said Reznikova, gazing at the destroyed Russian war machines along with her daughter, 4. “I am hopeful we will be victorious.”

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pleaded for foreign supplies of other weaponry, saying Ukrainian troops needed multiple-launch rocket systems, long-range artillery and armored personnel carriers.

“Russian offensive in the Donbas is a ruthless battle, the largest one on European soil since WWII. I urge partners to speed up deliveries of weapons and ammunition,” Kuleba tweeted Tuesday.

While on a swing through Asia this week, Biden signed bipartisan legislation granting an additional $40 billion in assistance to Kyiv. At a summit Tuesday in Tokyo with the leaders of Japan, Australia and India, Biden condemned Russia’s “brutal and unprovoked war against Ukraine” for triggering a humanitarian catastrophe.

“We’re navigating a dark hour in our shared history,” Biden said. “The world has to deal with it, and we are.”

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