DRUZHKIVKA, Ukraine — As the battle for Sievierodonetsk appears to be entering its final stages, it remains unclear what will happen to the Ukrainian forces and thousands of civilians who are practically trapped there.
Fighting in Sievierodonetsk, an industrial city in Ukraine’s east, has been fierce. Videos posted online have shown gun battles on streets ravaged by destruction. They are reminiscent of the fighting in Mariupol in the country’s south, before that city fell to the Russians, where apartment buildings were turned into machine gun nests and every window could hide an enemy sniper.
The close nature of the fighting means that Russia’s fire superiority, often consisting of massive artillery barrages and airstrikes, has largely been negated. Only dozens of yards have separated Russian and Ukrainian forces at times, meaning that friendly fire is a common concern.
Urban fighting favors the defender, but it is sustainable only for so long as casualties mount and ammunition runs dry.
“Our guys did not leave Sievierodonetsk; they are still fighting for every meter of our Motherland,” Oleksandr Voronenko, a military police officer stationed near the city, said Tuesday evening.
If the Ukrainian forces were to withdraw, they would have to eventually cross the Siversky Donets River into the neighboring city of Lysychansk. On Monday, the last bridge connecting the two cities was destroyed, making it harder for Ukrainian soldiers to reinforce their positions, evacuate their wounded or retreat.
While Ukrainian officials say that supplies can still get into and out of Sievierodonetsk, their forces face difficult options, including defending their shrinking territory from the Russians until they are forced into the river or trying to cross with boats, rope bridges or pontoon bridges.
These options, while feasible, are extremely dangerous. Ukrainian troops would be exposed to Russian artillery fire on both sides of the riverbank. And with Ukrainian artillery ammunition stockpiles at dangerously low levels, as Ukrainian officials have said in recent days, there is little support available to suppress Russian forces during the retreat.
The loss of the bridge could also complicate the Russian advance. It would make any frontal assault on Lysychansk more difficult, since that would require the Russians to expose their troops to attack while crossing the river.
“Ukraine’s situation in the Donbas appears difficult, and Sievierodonetsk may well be lost, but it is doubtful Russia has the forces for a major breakthrough,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at the Center for a New American Security, a research institute in Arlington, Va. “The situation in the city is characteristic of Ukrainian strategy to tie down Russian forces in urban terrain, exhausting them, but at a high price to their own units.”
Natalia Yermak contributed reporting.