A tiny town called Siversk and a potholed road running through it. That’s the current focus of the combined might of the Russian army’s best remaining battalions, as the Kremlin pushes its forces to achieve some kind of tangible victory in eastern Ukraine.
Siversk sits astride the last major road connecting, from west to east, Kramatorsk to Bakhmut to Severodonetsk in the Donbas region, much of which has been under Russian and separatist control since 2014.
But several Ukrainian brigades with thousands of troops between them are holding out in Severodonestk, the last city that Kyiv controls on the eastern bank of the Donets River near the old line of contact separating Russian and Ukrainian forces.
The Russians control territory north of Severodonetsk around the town of Lyman. They also control territory south of Severodonetsk around the town of Popasna. Now they’re aiming for Siversk, hoping to block the road and cut the main supply line to the Severodonetsk garrison.
“Russian enemy is trying to improve the tactical situation in the Bakhmut direction, to disrupt the logistics of our troops,” the Ukrainian general staff reported on Friday.
Without a road link, the garrison would rely on existing stockpiles plus whatever supplies low-flying helicopters can slip in at night. The potential for disaster for Kyiv would be enormous.
Thus the fight for Siversk, if and when it comes, could be brutal. Commanders and troops on both sides understand the stakes. Moscow needs a win to bolster the flagging morale of its battered formations. Kyiv, meanwhile, needs to show the world it still can hold off the Russians—and all those billions of dollars worth of weapons its allies are providing aren’t going to waste.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, the front lines are fairly static. In the north, the Ukrainians rolled back Russian advances around Kyiv and Kharkiv. In the south, the Russian offensive ground to halt just outside the port of Kherson. The Kremlin is shipping 60-year-old T-62 tanks to its forces in the south in a desperate bid to make good their deep losses.
But the fighting in Donbas is fluid. Most of the Russian army’s best units—including one company with the latest BMP-T fighting vehicle—have deployed around the Severodonetsk salient, giving the Russians’ a numerical and firepower advantage over the Ukrainian forces in the area.
In the past couple of weeks, Russian parachute battalions, reinforced by Wagner Group mercenaries, have advanced nearly 10 miles north of Popasna, crossing a third of the salient. Other Russian forces seized Lyman. “Russian forces have made steady, incremental gains in heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine in the past several days, though Ukrainian defenses remain effective overall,” noted the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.
Russian advances have placed the Siversk road—and the town itself, of course—in range of medium artillery. Russian pilots have bombed Siversk, too, although at great risk to their own safety. Ukrainian volunteers have been braving bombardment to help Siversk residents evacuate. Kyiv’s logisticians face the same danger every time they try to force supplies through to Severodonestk.
What happens next in Siversk—and, by extension, in Severodonetsk—depends on how much combat power the depleted Russian army has left after a two-week push around Lyman and Popasna. It also depends on how many fresh troops Ukraine has managed to push toward Siversk. Logistics are critical for both sides.
“Russia is pressuring the Severodonetsk pocket, although Ukraine retains control of multiple defended sectors, denying Russia full control of the Donbas,” the U.K. Defense Ministry reported on Friday. That could change in coming weeks.