The Ukrainian army said Tuesday that Russian troops had captured a number of key villages to the south of Lysychansk, allowing them to bombard the city, already heavily shelled for weeks, from a closer range and raising fears they could try to encircle Ukrainian forces from that direction.
The development is a “clear setback” for Ukraine, the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based military think tank, said in its daily assessment Tuesday.
Ukrainian and Russian forces have been waging a street-to-street battle for weeks over control of Sievierodonetsk, which lies on the other side of the Siverskyi Donets River. The city’s defenders there have now been confined to its industrial zone but continued to hold out, Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said Wednesday.
It was believed that Russia may have to wait to take full control of Sievierodonetsk and then attempt a risky river crossing — something it’s struggled with before — before threatening Lysychansk from the northeast. But now it appears to be closing in from the southwest.
Russian forces “may be able to threaten Lysychansk in the coming days while avoiding a difficult opposed crossing of the Siverskyi Donets River,” the Institute for the Study of War said.
The Kremlin’s forces have achieved a “tactical breakthrough” near Lysychansk, said Michael A. Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst and head of intelligence at Le Beck consultancy.
“The Russian army has breached through some of the Ukrainian defenses and are now approaching Lysychansk,“ he said. “Although they are staging a staunch and brave defense of the area, the Ukrainian military may have to make some difficult choices in the coming days or weeks.”
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was quoted by the Ukrainian news agency Unian on Tuesday as saying that the Ukrainian armed forces were having “big problems” near Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. He called the threat that the Russians will try to encircle Ukrainians in the area “absolutely real.”
Taking the twin cities would give Moscow full control of the Luhansk province, moving it closer to achieving its objective of capturing the entire region.
The gains will come as a boost for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who made capturing the Donbas his primary objective after military setbacks early in the war forced Moscow’s troops to retreat from around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. On Wednesday, Putin laid flowers in memory of the war dead as both countries marked the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the then-Soviet Union in 1941, which Ukrainian officials have compared to Moscow’s invasion of their country just short of four months ago.
“[Russians] control about 97% of the Luhansk oblast,” said defense analyst Konrad Muzyka, director of Poland-based Rochan Consulting that specializes in Russia and Belarus. “Once they capture Sievierodonetsk fully and then Lysychansk, they will be on the verge of fulfilling one of the goals of the second phase of this military operation. It is incredibly important for Russia that this happens from their point of view.”