Two months on, Russia is still struggling to capture this small Ukrainian city

LUHANSK, UKRAINE - JUNE 8: Smoke rises from the city of Severodonetsk seen from Lisichansk, Luhansk Oblast, Ukraine, on June 8, 2022. (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

It’s been nearly two months since Russian forces began their assault on the city of Severodonetsk. But despite overwhelming firepower, they still can’t dislodge determined Ukrainian resistance — nor cut the supply lines that provide the city’s remaining defenders with a drip-feed of weapons and ammunition.

The fierce Ukrainian defense of Severodonetsk, despite heavy losses, has forced the Russians to concentrate firepower on a relatively small area and held up their efforts to seize the 10% of Luhansk region they still do not control.

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the seizure of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions as one of the objectives of Moscow’s special military operation that began in February. For now, that operation is largely stalled; a large part of Donetsk remains beyond the Russians’ reach.

Russian forces are making modest gains — the Russian Defense Ministry said Sunday that the town of Metelkino just southeast of Severodonetsk had been taken. But the Russians’ goal of encircling the Ukrainian troops defending the twin cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk still appears some way off.

In a campaign lacking agility and imagination, the Russians have resorted to one principal tactic: overwhelming indirect fire against any and all Ukrainian positions, regardless of the collateral destruction.

The aim is to leave nothing standing that can be defended. The use of troops on the ground to take and hold urban areas has been less frequent and less successful.

In a video of Ukrainian special forces in the area released at the weekend, one unidentified Ukrainian soldier says: “They are throwing everything they have, all the munitions they have. It doesn’t matter for them if it’s our positions or civilian areas, they wipe everything from the face of earth and then they use artillery and then they start moving forward little by little.”

Amid intense urban combat, some 500 civilians, including dozens of children, have taken shelter in the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk. Unlike the Azovstal plant in Mariupol, it offers little protection below ground. Ukrainian officials say people there, who previously refused to leave, do have food supplies but can no longer be evacuated from the plant because of the intense fighting.

But as with Azovstal, the Azot plant and its immediate surroundings have become the focal point of Ukrainian resistance — frustrating Russian commanders.

According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank in Washington, “Russian troops are likely facing mounting losses and troop and equipment degradation that will complicate attempts to renew offensive operations on other critical locations as the slow battle for Severodonetsk continues.”

Just as the defense of Mariupol drew in more than a dozen battalion tactical groups, so overcoming resistance in Severodonetsk is proving labor-intensive.