'Ghost Towns' Become Flashpoint of Fierce War in the East

LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — Just to get around town, Ukrainian soldiers accelerate at breakneck speeds in their SUVs, scream around bends, wea...


LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — Just to get around town, Ukrainian soldiers accelerate at breakneck speeds in their SUVs, scream around bends, weave through yards, then pile up and run for cover.

“They see us and they 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 town that is safe.”

He made his career on the heights of Lysychansk, across the river from Sievierodonetsk, the site of the fiercest fighting in eastern Ukraine. To prepare, he placed a hand grenade in the cup holder between the front seats of his vehicle. A box of pistol ammo slid back and forth on the dash as he drove.

Signs of Ukraine’s tenuous military positions are everywhere: on the hills above Sievierodonetsk, smoke from a dozen fires bears witness to weeks of see-saw urban fighting. The only supply route to the west is littered with burnt-out vehicles, hit by Russian artillery.

The resounding metallic explosions of incoming shells sound every few minutes.

These two towns, separated by the Seversky Donets River, have become the focal point of the battle in the east, although weeks of shelling have driven out most civilians, and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine recently branded them “dead cities”.

Russia’s objective is clear: it aims to capture the cities, even if it means razing them, and to continue its march towards the west.

However, Ukraine’s strategy in this country remains unclear. Analysts say Sievierodonetsk, with its empty streets and hollowed-out buildings, has limited military significance, and in recent days Mr Zelensky has spoken both of the merits of stepping down and the longer-term risks of doing so.

On Wednesday night he returned to the emphasis on its importance, calling the fighting here a pivotal part of the wider battle for the region. “In many ways, the fate of our Donbass is decided there,” he said in his nightly address to the nation.

“We are defending our positions, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy,” Zelensky said. “It’s a very fierce, very difficult battle. Probably one of the most difficult in this whole war.

Still, the government’s mixed signals appeared again on Thursday when Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, issued a desperate plea for more powerful weapons. “We have proven 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 up to 100 Ukrainian soldiers were being killed every day.

Indeed, the fighting on the plains of eastern Ukraine has become a race between the Russian tactics of making slow, methodical advances that gain ground even as they reduce towns to rubble and kill one countless numbers, and the delivery – much too slow, according to the Ukrainians – of powerful Western weapons needed to stop the invaders.

The Ukrainian army and government are no longer hiding the challenges they face in the East, three and a half months after the Russian invasion. Their daily updates that highlight real setbacks are atypically honest by military press office standards, a tactic perhaps intended to add a sense of urgency to their daily appeals for Western heavy weaponry.

Russia also moved quickly to punish Ukrainian soldiers captured on the battlefield.

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 on Thursday after being accused of being mercenaries, a reported Russian news agency Interfax.

The death sentences of the men – Aiden Aslin, 28, and Shaun Pinner, 48, from Britain and Brahim Saadoun from Morocco – have alarmed human rights defenders and raised questions about the protection of thousands of fighters born in foreigner serving in Ukraine, some of whom were taken prisoner.

In Russia, investigators said Thursday they had opened 1,100 cases of potential “crimes against peace” committed by captured Ukrainian servicemen, possibly paving the way for a mass show trial.

Fighting in Sievierodonetsk has reduced to bloody block-by-block battles, although a senior Ukrainian official, Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Mr Zelensky, suggested on Thursday that Russia had partially withdrawn to clear the battlefield for new artillery bombardments.

Sievierodonetsk lies on the mostly flat eastern bank of the river, and the only line of supply for the Ukrainian forces is a partially obstructed bridge. Two other bridges were destroyed earlier in the fighting. In the floodplain of the river, under one of the crumbling bridges, lies the overturned wreckage of a truck that plunged when the span was destroyed.

On the high western shore is the city of Lysychansk. The two cities form a single metropolitan area, separated only by the river. Lysychansk, on the high bank, is considered a more defensible fallback position for the Ukrainians fighting in this area.

In Lysychansk, chunks of asphalt, sheared tree branches and other bombing debris litter the city’s streets, which were otherwise mostly empty on a visit this week. Broken power lines fall from poles. In one place, an unexploded Russian rocket shoots out of a sidewalk.

Across the river, the streets of Sievierodonetsk were at times eerily quiet, at other times a cacophony of gunfire and explosions.

Rapid fire from large-caliber guns on armored personnel carriers, resembling a jackhammer at work, echoed through the area.

A few kilometers to the west, another battle rages in a pastoral landscape of rolling steppes and small villages, as Russian forces attempt to cut supply lines, surround the two towns and trap the Ukrainian fighters. Both armies continuously fire artillery at each other, with the Russians gaining the upper hand for now.

A maze of small rural roads is now the only access route for Ukrainians, and it is vulnerable to Russian artillery. On Wednesday, in a field a few hundred meters from a road, a Ukrainian military vehicle burned and emitted a plume of black smoke.

“They are trying to form a circle, trap all the soldiers inside and destroy them,” said Mariana Bezugla, deputy director of the Ukrainian parliament’s security, defense and intelligence committee.

The military does not disclose troop numbers, but Ms Bezugla said several thousand Ukrainian troops are now deployed in the area at risk of being surrounded.

Ms Bezugla wears a military uniform and gold-tinted aviator goggles as she drives a van once used as an armored vehicle for a bank. She has been living in the area of ​​potential encirclement for two weeks, she said, working to ensure that military aid to Ukraine is not misused. This question is likely to grow in importance as billions of dollars in Western aid arrive.

These weapons arrive, but do not reach the front quickly. Poland has promised tanks and armored vehicles, according to the Polish government. Norway sent self-propelled howitzers, as well as spare parts and ammunition. The United States and its allies sent towed howitzers. And earlier this month, the United States and Britain promised advanced mobile multi-rocket launchers, which Ukraine’s military said it needed to hit Russian targets far from the front.

But it’s unclear how much has arrived where it’s needed most and whether it will be enough.

“I can’t say I’m happy with the pace and quantity of weapon supplies. Absolutely not,” said Mr. Reznikov, the defense minister. “But at the same time, I am extremely grateful to the countries that support us.”

Ms. Bezugla said she was also grateful. “But for me it’s hard to understand why aid is given in doses, just enough to survive but not enough to win,” she said. “It worries me. Our people are dying here every day.

In a field of green wheat shoots, a sign of the need for additional American military aid was the blown debris of earlier aid. An American M777 howitzer had lost an artillery duel; it was blown into several blackened and charred pieces amid craters from Russian artillery.

The report was provided 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.

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Newsrust - US Top News: 'Ghost Towns' Become Flashpoint of Fierce War in the East
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