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Why is the city of Severodonetsk, in eastern Ukraine, crucial to the Russian offensive?

Desperate for a victory, Russian troops are resorting to “scorched earth” tactics to try to conquer the city of Severodonetsk. The constant bombing risks making the city “a new Mariupol”, warn Ukrainian officials.

According to the governor of the Lugansk region, Russian troops are using the “scorched earth” tactic in Severodonetsk, constantly bombing the area. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has already warned that fighting in this region of the country is getting more and more bloody, with up to 100 Ukrainian soldiers dying every day.

With the port city of Mariupol conquered, Russian troops are trying to encircle Severodonetsk, which, before the war, had a population of around 100,000. Moscow is trying to gain control of the Donbass region, which includes Donetsk and Lugansk.

Russian forces are “using everything they have in that direction,” says Matthew Schmidt, assistant professor of National Security and Political Science at the University of New Haven (USA). Having missed other important objectives, he continues, “they are focused on these tactical battles”.

According to Schmidt, Moscow has had little effectiveness in combat, with great losses at the level of unit commands, eventually forming “Frankenstein-groups”, composed of troops from different units. Many of them are exhausted.

Russian forces “need a victory,” says Schmidt. And, since they don’t seem to have officers capable of leading effective offensives against Ukraine, they are choosing to crush the Ukrainians with bombings in order to try to achieve victory in Severodonetsk. But this way in which the Russians are “making way” could have disastrous consequences for civilians, as happened in Mariupol, warns the professor. “They are simply crushing the Ukrainians with artillery.”

Russian troops are concentrating efforts on “wiping Severodonetsk off the face of the earth”, which includes shooting at buildings as they move through the city’s streets, accused Lugansk regional governor Serhii Haidai this weekend. The Washington Post was unable to independently verify these claims.

“Every day [Russian troops] have been trying to break the line of defense,” Haidai said in an interview with Ukrainian media that he later posted on Telegram on Sunday. “There are bombings 24 hours a day and the Russian army has unfortunately chosen the scorched earth tactic against the city of Severodonetsk: they are simply destroying the city systematically. Everywhere there is bombing, constantly.”

The Ukrainian Ombudsman, Liudmila Denisova, for her part, denounced that the city is becoming “a new Mariupol”.

Russian troops destroyed a bridge to Severodonetsk on Saturday, making it more difficult to evacuate people and supply the city with supplies. “If they destroy one more bridge, then the city will, unfortunately, be completely isolated,” Haidai declared on Sunday. About 10,000 people remain in Severodonetsk — about a tenth of its pre-war population — and most “are practically always in underground shelters,” he added.

For Moscow’s forces, Schmidt continues, it is very much at stake: a loss would be “devastating to morale and strategic position”. Even in the event of a victory, the high number of casualties and equipment losses can be costly. In the meantime, Ukrainian forces can retreat to a safe position from which they can continue to exert pressure on Russia, he explains.

Asked by a Channel 24 journalist on Sunday whether Russian troops would “calm down if their attack on Severodonetsk is successful”, Haidai’s answer was clear: “No, of course not. The Russian army will only calm down when it is calmed down, which means they will only stop where they are stopped.”

Source: With Agencies

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