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Key eastern Ukrainian city teeters in a battle of ‘simply terrifying’ cost

Russian forces appeared Tuesday to tighten their chokehold on a strategic eastern city that has become the scene of one of the Ukraine war’s bloodiest battles, as fears mounted over the fate of hundreds of civilians trapped in an artillery-pounded industrial zone.

Ukraine insisted that its troops had not ceded control of Severodonetsk, a small industrial city seen as pivotal to the fight for the country’s Donbas region, but acknowledged that the situation was increasingly dire with Russia having severed the last bridge linking it to a sister city across the Seversky Donets River.

With the Russian invasion in the middle of its fourth month, Moscow is ramping up its defense spending as it presses its campaign to seize a huge swath of eastern Ukraine, British military analysts said Tuesday.

Away from the eastern front lines, Ukrainian war-crimes investigators were poring over the latest grisly evidence of atrocities against civilians committed by Russian troops who earlier in the war occupied areas near the capital, Kyiv. Ukrainian authorities say they have been exhuming a newly discovered mass grave near the town of Bucha, with some of the bodies bearing signs of torture and bound hands.

A member of an extraction crew works during an exhumation at a mass grave near Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine.

(Natacha Pisarenko / Associated Press)

Russia has insisted that evidence of war crimes has been fabricated, but since the end of March, more than 1,300 bodies have been unearthed in the capital’s environs, pointing to the execution-style killings of large numbers of noncombatants.

Hundreds of miles away in Ukraine’s east, the struggle for Severodonetsk, which boasted a prewar population of about 100,000 people, has become one of the war’s most brutal faceoffs, President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his overnight address to the nation.

“The human cost of this battle is very high for us — it is simply terrifying,” Zelensky said. The wider conflict in the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, “will without doubt be remembered in military history as one of the most violent battles in Europe,” he said.

The Ukrainian military said in its daily operational report Tuesday that Russian forces were “trying to gain a foothold” in the city center. British military intelligence said Tuesday that Russia’s “main operational effort” remains the assault on Severodonetsk, adding that Moscow’s forces, for the first time in weeks, had likely made “small advances in the Kharkiv sector.”

Kharkiv, near the Russian border in the northeast, is Ukraine’s second-largest city, and retaining control of it and its environs remains one of Ukraine’s significant wartime feats, along with foiling Russian forces’ earlier attempt to seize Kyiv. The failure to subdue either city forced the Kremlin to scale back its war aims and focus instead on conquering the Donbas, where pro-Russia separatists have already fought Ukrainian defenders for eight years and established control over large chunks of territory.

The fight for the Donbas has devolved into a war of attrition that is killing up to 200 Ukrainian troops a day, Ukrainian officials say, as well as exacting a horrific civilian toll.

The Russian Defense Ministry claimed Tuesday to have struck more than 100 targets in the previous 24 hours, taking aim at troop concentrations and military equipment. The claims could not be independently confirmed.

Ukraine’s daily pleas for more heavy weaponry have taken on greater urgency as Russian artillery pounds targets along a battlefront stretching hundreds of miles. Western defense ministers are to meet Wednesday in Brussels to discuss additional military aid to Ukraine.

Zelensky told Danish journalists in a briefing Tuesday that his country’s ability to fight back was hampered by Russia’s ability to train long-range fire on Ukrainian troops and cities, with Ukraine forces unable to respond in kind.

“We have enough weapons,” he said. “What we don’t have enough of are the weapons that really hit the range that we need to reduce the advantage” of Russia’s equipment.

Woman sitting in an evacuation train

A woman from the Lysychansk area, near embattled Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, sits in an evacuation train.

(Bernat Armangue / Associated Press)

The fight for Severodonetsk has taken on bleak overtones reminiscent of the grinding and ultimately losing battle of Mariupol, the strategic southern port where Ukrainian defenders held out for weeks in a giant steel plant that also served as a civilian shelter. In Severodonetsk, Ukrainian officials say shells are striking an industrial zone where some 500 civilians are seeking safety.

The war’s steady western encroachment could be readily seen on the ground. Outside the eastern city of Kramatorsk, what began as a calm Tuesday morning was interrupted by the distant roar of a pair of surface-to-air missiles, their contrails streaking across the blue sky.

The little traffic on the road was almost exclusively military or related to aid efforts, with weathered-looking tanks and trucks, mine-resistant vehicles and ambulances making their way down the highways toward Severodonetsk, some 40 miles east.

Closer to the front, the Russians were regularly shelling the main road, forcing the few travelers in the area to forge a path through side villages and on dirt roads through fields, adding hours to their journey.

Even in these bucolic settings, the occasional column of smoke could be seen where a Russian shell had slammed into a cottage or landed in a field and started a fire.

Bulos reported from Kramatorsk and King from Washington.

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