Perched on high ground across the river from the larger city of Severodonetsk, the town of Lysychansk has played a critical role over the last two months of the battle in eastern Ukraine. When Russian forces pressed into Severodonetsk in May, they seemed to think taking the city would be a cakewalk. Not only did Russia almost immediately claim to have control over that city, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s TikTok brigade even issued a video, filmed who knows where, that claimed to show the residents of Severodonetsk greeting their Russian occupiers with “hugs and kisses.”
But when Russian forces actually strolled into Severodonesk over the next few days, they got a big surprise. They got their warm hug. From massed artillery. Within days, more than two-thirds of Severodonetsk was back in Ukrainian control.
Over the following month, Ukraine surrendered the city block by block as Russia brought more and more forces into the area. Ukrainian forces finally withdrew from Severodonetsk in the last week of June, but they did so in an orderly fashion, getting troops back across the river and leaving little behind in terms of arms or other equipment. Ukraine lost the city, but it wasn’t a rout. Both the damage that Russian took in trying to capture Severodonetsk and the careful way in which Ukraine was able to get civilians and military forces out ahead of the final Russian advance, were thanks to the guns looking down from Lysychansk.
With steep hills along the south and sharp bluffs facing the river, Lysychansk was the perfect place to host Ukraine’s long guns, including M777 howitzers freshly arrived from the United States. From that position, artillery could not just fire down on Russian forces attempting to move along the city’s streets, it could “reach out and touch” Russia’s own heavy weaponry several kilometers north and west of the city.
Lysychansk’s position, far out on the end of the Ukrainian salient in the Luhansk, made it possible to fire at forces across the river to the north, or approaching from Popasna to the south. Even though a reported three M777s were lost, every day the NASA FIRMS maps gave the same report—Lysychansk was dealing out a lot more damage than it was receiving. From Lysychansk, Ukraine was able to repeatedly hit Russian batteries operating on the far side of Rubizhne and around Kreminna to the north. The toll of those guns is unlikely to ever be known. But it was high.
However, the same thing that made Lysychansk such a valuable position—how it juts out in an area surrounded by Russian control on three sides—is now making it extremely vulnerable.
Along the east side of the town, the Siverski Donets River runs hard against a series of high bluffs, making any approach from Severodonestk difficult. On the south end of the city are steep hills, some wooded, some clustered with buildings, which made that approach difficult. Both woods and buildings created locations that were tailor-made for ambushes, and the hills were already guaranteed to slow an advance long enough to bring in more withering artillery fire.
However, over the last month, Russia has occupied over 1,500 square kilometers in Ukraine. A sizable part of that gain came when Russian forces pushed through the Ukrainian defensive line at Toshkiva and moved swiftly to capture a series of towns and villages south and southwest of Lysychansnk. Over the weekend, Russian forces moved up those steep hills on the south side, bringing the fight to the streets of the city. At the same time, Russian forces appear to have crossed the river to the north and are pressing down toward Novodruzhesk.
Most critically, Russian forces have been fighting it out with Ukrainian troops in the oil refinery and associated plants at Verkhnokamyanka, southwest of Lysychansk. From this position, Russian troops are threatening to move into the city along a major highway, and could cut off any forces still holding the southern approach. Lysychansk is in a vice and, good artillery position it may be, it’s not worth the cost of remaining.
On Thursday, Ukrainian forces appeared to be doing the reasonable thing and withdrawing from the area. Reports are that heavy equipment has been moving west along the road past Bilhorivka (site of that Russian river crossing disaster). Both artillery and troops are reportedly digging in near Siversk, about 20km west of Lysychansk.
This makes sense, as Siversk is almost directly north of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian troops have been pushing back attempted Russian advances for over a month. Bakhmut is a critical junction for both highways and rail. Most of the supplies that had gone to Lysychansk and Severdonetsk flowed through there. Now Bakhmut and Siversk look to be Ukraine’s new line of defense in the east.
Russia’s real targets in the area are the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, located about 30km west of that Siversk-Bakhmut line. There’s not just a highway between Siversk and Bakhmut, but a still functioning rail line. For now, at least, men and materiel can move swiftly along that line. There’s no large river or line of bluffs to fall back behind. However, there is a range of hills that looms up on the west side of both Siversk and Bakhmut. Don’t be surprised if Ukrainian guns move to the top of those hills while Ukrainian troops dig in to protect the towns below.
So far, Russian forces attempting to approach Slovyansk and Kramatorsk along the western route, from the Russian concentration of units at Izyum, have been pushed back again and again around Dolyna, about 20km to the northwest. That’s likely to remain the critical position on the western edge, as there’s no other great line of approach unless Russia intends to go back to square one and attempt a much larger swing to the west.
As Ukrainian forces pull back from Lysychansk and reform along the new line, what has been an incredibly punishing artillery war could become even worse, with both sides firing into much more concentrated positions. So far as Luhansk goes, that slice between Dolyna on one side, and Siversk-Bakhmut on the other, is the whole ball game for Russian ambitions.
Ukraine has new weapons on hand, including HIMARS and other MLRS, as well as a collection of artillery rolled in by NATO members. Russia has been losing forces at a tremendous rate, and there have been talks of depleted battle groups and waning morale stretching back weeks. The test ahead is going to be tremendous … but Lysychansk has played its part.
Ukraine will see it again—when its forces are going the other way.
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