LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — Fierce fighting raged in Sievierodonetsk on Wednesday after the destruction of a key bridge there in recent days, nearly cutting off Ukrainian forces fighting to capture the strategically important eastern city.
In the neighboring city of Lysychansk, separated from Sievierodonetsk by a river, Ukrainian troops used the high ground there to fire at Russian troops on the other side. New York Times journalists in Lysychansk could see and hear heavy artillery fire from both directions through a light rain shower.
Ukrainian mortar teams moved around Lysychansk, firing several rounds in each place before moving to avoid the Russian backfire that was sure to follow. On the outskirts of the city, a Ukrainian Grad rocket launcher emerged from its wooded hideout, firing about a dozen rockets toward Sievierodonetsk. A plume of smoke from the firing ammunition floated into the air.
For Ukrainian officials and armed forces, it is battles like this in eastern Ukraine that have urged the West for more long-range artillery and other weaponry to help close the gap with Russian units. On Wednesday, the United States and its allies promised more weapons to come. But in cities that were once refuges, the Russian side’s scorched earth tactics with those kinds of weapons have been devastating to the civilians still trapped here.
At a ruined bridge in Lysychansk — one of several spanning the Siversky Donets River that once connected the city to Sievierodonetsk — the surrounding neighborhood looked as if artillery shells had destroyed nearly every foot of the ground. It was clear that the Russians had spent large amounts of ammunition to destroy the crossing, leaving the area devastated. Civilians searched among the wreckage on Wednesday while stray dogs barked incessantly.
“This is horror, this is horror,” said Natalia, 52, a former music teacher in Lysychansk, who declined to give her last name for security reasons. “My daughter is 32; my granddaughter is 12. She left as soon as it started.”
Lysychansk, an industrial city with a pre-war population of around 100,000, is starting to drain as Russian forces have taken large areas of Sievierodonetsk and have been shelling Lysychansk regularly.
Evacuations from Sievierodonetsk are disorganized, forcing residents to find their own escape route. But in Lysychansk, in a hodgepodge of vehicles, volunteers evacuate dozens of civilians every day.
One organization, called BASE UA, is staffed by a mix of Ukrainian and Western volunteers, including several Americans. In donated armored vans, the volunteers make several trips a day to reach civilians and defy the constant threat of artillery fire.
Local officials estimate that there are still between 30,000 and 40,000 civilians in Lysychansk. There are still about 10,000 civilians in Sievierodonetsk, including 500 people who are sheltering with Ukrainian troops in the Azot chemical plant.