It was about 11 a.m. when Arif Bagirov stepped onto his Ukrainian-made Ardis mountain bike and began pedalling out of town. He had always wanted to ride the green hills along the 60-kilometre route to Bakhmut, but this was different.
“It was an escape from hell,” he said.
Sievierodonetsk, the place of Mr. Bagirov’s birth and recent residence, has become Moscow’s latest ruined prize in Ukraine. With a weeks-long barrage of aerial bombardments and heavy artillery, Russian forces have sought to encircle the city and seize the administrative seat of Luhansk Oblast. By Friday, Russian troops had entered the outskirts of the city, regional authorities said.
Sievierodonetsk is among the last remaining Ukrainian strongholds in Luhansk, and a key centre in the eastern Donbas region. At least 95 per cent of Luhansk is already under Russian control. Moscow-backed troops are also gaining ground in Donetsk, the other major eastern oblast, declaring victory over the town of Lyman.
Words failed Mr. Bagirov as he sought to describe what life in the region has become, a crumbling world defined by sound: the whistle of rockets; the shriek of jets; the differing percussive blasts of mortars and artillery shells. As he cycled to safety this week, explosions forced him to leap into ditches for cover five times, twice from air attacks.
“I was riding, and praying, and riding – what else could I do?” he said. The smell of burned gunpowder singed the air. “It’s an artillery duel,” he said.
More than 60 per cent of the buildings in Sievierodonetsk have been destroyed or damaged, Serhii Haidai, the head of the Luhansk Military Administration, said Friday. Its electrical, natural gas and water infrastructure lies in ruins. Phone and internet connections have been severed for more than two weeks.
“They are doing the same things they did in Mariupol,” Mr. Haidai said from the nearby city of Bakhmut, where his administration has established itself after leaving Sievierodonetsk. “Which means they are totally destroying the city.” As he spoke, an explosion rang out so close by that car alarms sounded.
“Incoming,” Mr. Haidai said. For now, the Ukrainian soldiers fighting for Sievierodonetsk are slowing the Russian advance. But Mr. Haidai also suggested a retreat is possible if those troops risk complete encirclement. If “it is necessary to pull back to preserve troops, then the city should be left behind,” he said.
The Russian offensive on Sievierodonetsk marks the latest manifestation of the Kremlin’s new war on Ukraine. After the failed blitzkrieg attempt to topple the country’s government, followed by the humiliating retreat from Kyiv and Kharkiv, Russian forces have regrouped for a concerted effort to seize Donbas, the Russian-speaking region in east Ukraine that is rich in coal that Moscow covets.
That offensive has reached across the region. Olga Perepelytsia left her home in the Donetsk city of Sloviansk this week after her neighbour’s house was demolished by an explosion. On Friday, she boarded an evacuation train with two of her children, a puppy and as many household goods as she could pack, including forks, spoons and a vegetable peeler.
“We hoped right up until the end that we would be OK,” she said. “I just want my children to live on our own land.”
But Russia has attacked with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of munitions, using artillery and bombardment to accomplish slowly and with great destruction what it could not do quickly at the outset of the invasion. Its new approach yielded it control of Mariupol – at the cost of at least civilian 20,000 lives – and now appears set to win it Sievierodonetsk.
“It is too many orcs with far superior weapons,” said Yevheniy Shevchuk, using what has become a common epithet for Russian forces. A friend in Sievierodonetsk worked in body transport, and was recovering up to 60 dead people a day. Some corpses were charred. Some were missing heads.
Like Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk is an industrial city that had become a haven for people fleeing the areas of Donbas held by Russian-backed forces since 2014. It became the regional capital when those forces took control of the city of Luhansk.
Sievierodonetsk was built as a chemical centre, producing vast volumes of nitrogen fertilizer. Though its Soviet architecture did little to lend it beauty, its green parks and familiar spaces made it home for Mr. Shevchuk.
As war broke out, he was determined to stay, keeping busy by delivering humanitarian goods to others in the city. He drank water from a nearby well and cooked pasta and potatoes over an open fire. When shelling grew intense, he retreated to a basement shelter – until one explosion struck so close that the blast wave snuffed out his candle.
It was then he decided to leave. Not long ago, Sievierodonetsk might have seen 100 shells hit the city each day. By the time he left this week, it was 100 in his district alone, he said. “It will be much easier to build a new city than rebuild this one,” said Mr. Shevchuk, who works in construction.
He fled to Bakhmut, a place that has been a haven for people fleeing harder-hit cities. Many come first to the dormitory at the local arts college, where Anna Dubovaya spent Friday morning ironing sheets to prepare for new arrivals. She said at least two people have walked from Popasna, a town more than 30 kilometres away that has been mostly razed. Some fled by tractor.
“I feel such pity for these people,” she said. “They come here with eyes of glass, totally disoriented. They don’t understand who and where they are.”
The war has fractured her personal life, too. Her father and brother now live in Russia, and have been persuaded by local propaganda that their former home is now ruled by Nazis. They have suggested Ms. Dubovaya should spend the next few months in a basement, and then “everything will be OK,” she said. “They truly believe they are liberating us.”
In Bakhmut, too, the shattering sound of blasts – some outgoing fire, some incoming rounds – now regularly pierces the streets. As Russian munitions fall ever closer to Ms. Dubovaya’s home, communication with her father has dwindled to occasional phone messages.
“He just texts me from time to time to ask, ‘are you alive?’ ” Ms. Dubovaya said.
“And I reply: ‘yes.’”
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