In ordinary times, there are few things of note on Ukraine’s T1302 road, a stretch of roadway that crosses farmland and small villages and connects two towns in the southeast of the country. With one of these towns now under assault from Russian firepower, the road took on much greater importance, as the key to survival.
Every day, Russian forces pound the T1302 road with artillery. Their objective is to cut the cordon that stretches northeast from the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk province for about 43 miles to the besieged city of Sievierodonetsk in neighboring Luhansk province and give supplies a way to enter and fleeing residents a way out.
The road passes through the town of Lysychansk, which is also under attack, and crosses the Seversky Donets River before entering Sievierodonetsk on the east bank of the river. Russian artillery pounded the city for weeks, smashing buildings and killing civilians.
“Sievierodonetsk is barely alive,” said Serhiy Haidai, the head of Ukraine’s military administration in Luhansk, adding that the city has become the epicenter of the war. He said a woman died on Saturday and 13 high-rise buildings were damaged by shelling.
Russian forces also killed two civilians in renewed fighting on the highway, he said on Sunday, adding in a message on the Telegram messaging app that Ukrainian forces had successfully repelled an enemy attack on the “road of life”.
In recent weeks, the Battle of Sievierodonetsk has taken on a disproportionate importance in the four-month war. Russia’s inability to quickly capture the capital, Kyiv, in the first weeks of the conflict, or Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, forced it to focus on the eastern region of Donbass, where it has held significant territory since 2014.
Taking Sievierodonetsk would give Russia full control of Luhansk province, which together with neighboring Donetsk provinces constitutes Donbass. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, described the Battle of Sievierodonetsk as central to President Vladimir V. Putin’s military goals, but a spurious goal that could ultimately serve as a turning point.
Mr Putin is now “throwing men and ammunition” on Sievierodonetsk “as if doing so would win the war in the Kremlin. He is wrong,” the institute said in a report on Sunday.
“When the Battle of Sievierodonetsk ends, regardless of which side holds the city, the Russian offensive at the operational and strategic levels will probably have peaked, giving Ukraine the opportunity to relaunch its counter-offensives at the operational level to repel Russian forces,” the report said.
Since Friday, Russian forces have held the Mir Hotel, which sits northeast of Sievierodonetsk, as well as the nearby bus station, giving them a foothold in the city itself. Street battles with Ukrainian forces ensued, deepening the misery of the city’s civilian population, who for weeks cowered in basements or bomb shelters to avoid the relentless shelling.
Images posted on Telegram show dozens of destroyed buildings.
But analysts say the assault on Moscow began before the city was completely surrounded. The failure to cut off the Ukrainian route T1302 is essential to achieve this.
Analysts say Ukrainian forces will likely have to decide at some point to withdraw from Sievierodonetsk in order to preserve their forces, making it all the more imperative that the “road of life” remain open.