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Russia gains in the east, threatening to overrun Luhansk

Ukrainian Territorial Defense forces took cover in the woods after spotting what they thought could be a Russian drone flying above them on a road that leads to Lysychansk on Tuesday.Heidi Levine/For The Washington Post

DRUZHKIVKA, Ukraine — Ukrainian forces dug in for a last-ditch defense against Russian advances Wednesday in Luhansk province, where the invaders now threaten to overrun two major cities that had resisted their halting progress.

The prospect of a Russian takeover of the embattled cities, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, left Ukrainian commanders with the stark choice to stay and fight, risking severed supply lines and the encirclement of thousands of defenders, or withdraw and forfeit the last major urban centers in Luhansk, part of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

For weeks, the Russians had been content to lay back and fire artillery and rockets on Ukrainian forces before trying to push forward with tanks and troops. This strategy culminated in an apparent breakthrough Wednesday as the Russians seized three strategic villages, the regional governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Haidai, conceded.

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From the villages — Mirna Dolina, Podlisne, and Toshkivka — Russian troops have gained higher ground to fire on Lysychansk, including with shorter-range artillery.

“The last city is Lysychansk, and it will be very hard here, a lot of good guys will die,” said Sergiy, a Ukrainian soldier defending the city who gave only his first name for security reasons.

While the villages are small, their collapse within days of one another amounts to a significant breach in Ukraine’s defenses, bringing Russian forces to the doorstep of Lysychansk and threatening the dwindling supply routes into the city.

“The surprising aspect here is that Ukraine has chosen to reinforce as Russian forces inch closer to the city,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a research group in Virginia. “Both cities, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, could fall in the near term.”

That could open the way for Russia to seize Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk province, known collectively as Donbas.

Still, military analysts suggested it was premature to say Russia was on the cusp of a decisive turn in its four-month-old invasion.

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“Russia may not have the forces to exploit this localized offensive, and will find itself in a grinding fight against yet another set of Ukrainian defensive lines,” Kofman said.

The Russian advance was “a clear setback for Ukrainian defenses” in the region, although not necessarily the sign of a broader collapse, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a research group based in Washington.

Taking Lysychansk will likely require “further protracted battles with Ukrainian forces” in close combat, the institute said, similar to the vicious, block-by-block street fighting in cities like Sievierodonetsk and the southern port city of Mariupol.

Russia’s recent gains have come at a high price, particularly to ill-equipped soldiers drawn from the Russian-backed separatist enclaves of Luhansk and Donetsk. British military intelligence officials said in a report Wednesday that the pro-Moscow Donetsk militia had lost 55 percent of its forces, killed or wounded, in the recent fighting.

Like Ukrainian forces who rely on a medley of different units to wage war, the Russians have committed Chechen forces and Wagner paramilitary units alongside the separatists and other uniformed troops.

Ukrainian forces, too, have suffered significant losses and increasingly have been forced to restaff their casualty-stricken ranks with poorly trained territorial defense units to hold parts of the front line.

Ukrainian officials say that, like the defenders who held out in Mariupol for weeks, fighters have taken refuge in a chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk, along with an unknown number of civilians, suggesting it may take Russia days or weeks — if at all — to seize complete control.

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Capturing the Donbas has emerged as one of the Kremlin’s main objectives since it failed to seize the capital, Kyiv, several weeks into the war. Days before the invasion began, President Vladimir Putin of Russia recognized the independence of two breakaway territories in Donbas, where Russia-backed separatists have fought for eight years against Kyiv.

At that time, the separatists claimed about three times as much territory as they actually controlled. Now, after almost four full months of fighting, including weeks of shelling on Sievierodonetsk alone, Russian forces seem to be verging on control of Luhansk.

But Russia faces an even more difficult battle to seize the remaining territory held by Ukraine in Donetsk, analysts say, given the heavy casualties it has suffered and strong Ukrainian resistance. That Ukrainian backbone may be stiffening further, they say, as their fighting forces are bolstered by weapons arriving from the West, although it remains unclear that those weapons can turn the tide of the conflict.

Britain’s military intelligence agency said Tuesday that Ukraine had “almost certainly” used newly delivered Harpoon missiles to strike a Russian tugboat near Snake Island, in the Black Sea, one of a series of Ukrainian strikes in the area. The Ukrainian military said it also had destroyed an air-defense system and radar installation on Snake Island — an attack that Russia’s Defense Ministry said it had thwarted.

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Both sides have been testing for any weakness along a battlefront that extends from Kharkiv in the north to Mykolaiv in the south. On Wednesday, Russia pummeled Kharkiv with the most intense artillery bombardment since last month, when Ukrainian forces pushed the Russians back from the city.

At least 15 civilians were killed and 16 were wounded Tuesday, according to Oleg Sengubov, the head of the Kharkiv regional administration, accusing the Russians of artillery strikes on “residential areas where there are no military facilities.”

The Kremlin, with its renewed strikes around Kharkiv, was trying to keep Ukrainian forces occupied and away from other battles, and out of range of railway lines in the region used to resupply Russian forces, according to military analysts.

Ukrainian military officials have painted a striking picture of Russia’s efforts to flank Lysychansk from the east and west. In the west, Russian troops have positioned themselves to build pontoon bridges near the town of Siversk, a key strategic hub for Ukrainian supply routes, according to those officials.

And in the east, Russian reconnaissance units have tried to scout Ukrainian artillery positions in an attempt to destroy them and seize higher ground behind the city. “We are being pressed closer to the city,” said Oleksandr Voronenko, a military police officer in Lysychansk. “As long as there is a corridor through Siversk to Lysychansk, we will stand.”