It’s the last major city in the eastern Luhansk Oblast where the Ukrainian forces still have some presence. The Russians have already taken over more than half of the city, including its residential areas, while fighting has been raging in its industrial western half for weeks. The Ukrainian leadership has said they are losing up to 200 soldiers every day. But despite the setbacks, the Ukrainians continue to defend Severodonetsk, the loss of which, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky, would determine the fate of Ukraine’s east.
Severodonetsk, a city with a pre-war population of over 120,000, has been a focal point of the Russia-Ukraine conflict since 2014. After the pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine’s east took up arms in 2014, Ukraine briefly lost control of the city. Violence broke out in the east after Ukraine’s elected government collapsed in the wake of the West-backed Euromaidan protests. Russia quickly annexed Crimea through a referendum and threw its weight behind the separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts, which together make the majority-Russian speaking Donbas region,. After the initial setbacks, Ukrainian forces, aligned with self-styled far-right nationalists, regrouped and recaptured several cities, including Mariupol and Severodonetsk.
Ever since, Severodonetsk has remained the capital of the Ukraine-controlled parts of Luhansk Oblast, while Luhansk city, the most populous city in the province, has been with the separatists. Since the war began on February 24, Russian troops have been slowly but steadily pushing the frontlines in Luhansk and Donetsk. Last month, the Russians took full control of Mariupol, one of the biggest industrial cities in the Donbas that sits on the Sea of Azov coast and then started concentrating their firepower on Severodonetsk and its sister city Lysychansk, which are divided by the Donets river.
The modern city of Severodonetsk was founded in the 1930s after the Soviets built the Lysychansk Nitrogen Fertilizer Plant across the river. The industrial activity led to the rise of a new settlement on the both sides of the Donets valley. During the Second World War, like most other cities in Ukraine, the German Nazis took the settlement, which was then called Liskhimstroi, and the industrial complex. The Soviet Red Army liberated the city on February 1, 1943. Seven years later, as Liskhimstroi was rising as a centre of Ukraine’s chemical industry, it was renamed as Severodonetsk, after the Donets river that cuts across Ukraine’s east. Before the Russian invasion, Severodonetsk accounted for some 22% of the industrial output of Luhansk. It’s also home to Azot Corporation, one of the largest chemical plants in Europe.
On February 24, Russia opened multiple fronts attacking Ukraine from the north, east and south. While its troops faced fierce Ukrainian resistance in the north, forcing Moscow to pull back forces from around Kyiv and Kharkiv, they made gains in the south and east. In recent weeks, Russian troops’ main war effort has been in the Donbas, “the liberation” of which is “an unconditional priority”, as stated by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavorv. This means, Russia wants to take full control of Luhansk and Donetsk. And for this, the capture of Severodonetsk is key.
If they capture Severodonetsk, the Russians can move towards Lysychansk and then further towards the territories in Donetsk that are still defended by Ukrainian forces. Furthermore, Russia, which has already taken over the Azovstal Steel Mill of Mariupol and controls key ports on the Black Sea/Azov Sea coasts such as Berdyansk, Mariupol and Kherson, would be able to choke Ukraine’s economy further if it takes Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. In recent weeks, Russia has pummelled both cities with its devastating artillery fire. On the other side, for Ukraine, after the fall of Mariupol, Severodonetsk has become a symbol of resistance.
Ukraine’s best hope is to make Russia’s gains costlier and slow down its advances, if not reversing them. The U.S. has already announced that it would be sending long-range rockets (Multiple Launch Rocket Systems and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems) to Ukrainian forces, which Kyiv hopes would help bolster its defence of the last standing cities in the east.