LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — All the bridges connecting the Ukrainian twin cities of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk are destroyed and street-by-street fighting continues, leaving thousands of civilians largely trapped inside one of the deadliest battles of the war so far. .
Russia has attacked the area since it began its full-scale invasion in February, but as it scaled back its offensive into the resource-rich eastern Donbas region, Russian commanders have steadily redirected more forces to the small patch of land in Sievierodonetsk and its surroundings.
There are still an estimated 10,000 people in the city of Sievierodonetsk, with several hundred believed to be hiding in bunkers below a chemical plant that is under almost constant bombardment. The Ukrainian government said this week that any large-scale evacuation of the city is now impossible. Russia has promised to create a humanitarian corridor, but previous claims have failed to materialize and Russian forces have directed their fire at places where civilians were gathering to flee.
Fierce fighting continued Thursday in Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk. A Russian airstrike hit the center of Lysychansk on Thursday morning, killing at least one person, local authorities said.
For most of the day, Russian and Ukrainian artillery fired from opposite banks of the Siversky Donets River, which divides the two cities. A group of Ukrainian soldiers, taking a breather from the fighting in the basement of a Soviet-style apartment, asked The New York Times reporters when Western rocket artillery systems would arrive, saying they needed a lot of them.
On the front line as Russian artillery shells the city of Lysychansk, “an hour feels like a whole day,” one soldier said.
In Sievierodonetsk, the people of the ruined city are now mostly alone. Those who have made it recently describe harrowing scenes.
Serhiy Haidai, head of the Lugansk military administration, said the shelling was now so intense that “people can no longer bear it in the shelters, their psychological state is at the limit.”
Russia does not control the city, he said, and pitched battles are being waged from house to house. At the same time, Russian forces continue to raze villages around the city, Haidai said.
“The destruction of the residential sector is catastrophic,” he said. People in the city have reported running out of food and clean water, describing scenes similar to those that have unfolded in Mariupol and many other towns and cities along the eastern front over the past four months.
Another 60,000 civilians are believed to still be living in Ukrainian-controlled Lysychansk. But constant Russian bombardment of the area as Russia tries to encircle Ukrainian forces has made any large-scale evacuation an extremely difficult proposition.
Much of the 50,000 to 60,000 artillery rounds Russia fires every day are concentrated in this last sliver of Ukrainian-controlled Luhansk province.
The kind of convoy needed for a large-scale evacuation would likely require Russian-Ukrainian coordination overseen by international mediators. There has been no public suggestion that such a plan is being discussed. In Lysychansk, volunteers in a mix of vehicles are evacuating dozens of civilians each day.
Ukraine’s top military commander, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said in a statement that Russia had focused its efforts on this battle. In addition to continuous artillery shelling, he said, Moscow is conducting airstrikes and using multiple rocket launch systems to annihilate everything in its path. Russian forces are trying to advance along nine separate fronts from the north, east and south.
Despite Russia’s superior arsenal, the Ukrainians have been able to prevent Moscow’s forces from completing the encirclement of the area. General Zaluzhnyi said that they would continue to fight.
Sievierodonetsk, he said, is a key point in the Lugansk region’s defensive system. “The city can be seen as nothing less than that,” he said.