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Ukrainian tanks and various Grad rocket launch systems heading towards Toshkivka, Ukraine, were seen on Sunday. Credit … Tyler Hicks / The New York Times

LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine – Russian forces launched an assault on a key Ukrainian defensive position near two strategically important eastern cities on Sunday, Ukrainian military officials said, bringing them one step closer to the siege of thousands of troops. Ukrainian troops.

Ukrainian forces rushed reinforcements to frontline positions around Toshkivka, a small town southeast of the Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk metropolitan area. The Russians “succeeded” but eventually retained, a Ukrainian official said, but the fight highlighted Ukraine’s hesitant defense of two of the last cities in Luhansk province in the region of Luhansk. Donbas not yet under Russian control.

If Moscow forces manage to cut off Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, they could block thousands of Ukrainian fighters defending the cities, deliver a military victory in Moscow and bring their forces closer to President Vladimir V. Putin’s goal of seizing everything. the eastern Donbas of Ukraine. region.

Volunteers urged residents of Lysychansk, Ukraine, to evacuate on Sunday. Credit … Tyler Hicks / The New York Times

On Sunday afternoon, Ukrainian battle tanks and various Grad rocket launch systems were seen heading towards Toshkivka and other parts of the front line, with smoke coming out of its chassis and towards the roads of the roads, probably in an effort to push back Russian forces. there.

A crew member, when asked if his tank was heading for the Ukrainian defenses in that area, smiled and nodded.

As Russian troops have moved to surround both cities amid weeks of street fighting and artillery duels, Ukrainian forces have retreated and now have only a small part of Sievierodonetsk. This includes a chemical plant where hundreds of civilians are believed to have taken refuge and which has been bombed by Russians in recent days, Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said on Sunday.

Fighting continues elsewhere in the region. In the southwest, Ukrainian military officials said Sunday that their troops had successfully repelled an offensive on the eastern outskirts of Berestove. The Ukrainian Army General Staff added that Russia is planning another assault on Sloviansk, about 50 miles directly west of Sievierodonetsk.

Russia’s Defense Ministry did not immediately comment on Toshkivka, but said on Sunday that his forces had seized Metolkine, a town east of Sievierodonetsk. The Russian state news agency Tass said that many Ukrainian fighters had surrendered there, although it was not possible to independently verify the allegations.

Smoke from a fire caused by an artillery attack on a Ukrainian checkpoint in Lysychansk, Ukraine, on Sunday. Credit … Tyler Hicks / The New York Times

Toshkivka has served as an important part of a defensive wall in what has become known as the Sievierodonetsk pocket. Located in the Donbas region, an area of ​​undulating plains, crop fields and coal mining towns, where Moscow has pledged most of its military power in recent months, the pocket is encircled in three-quarters by Russian forces. . This has only left a slender gap in the west where Ukrainian troops are coming and going using the village roads that are often the target of Russian artillery fire.

And Russian troops have been advancing to close the gap.

If Ukrainian forces are unable to reinforce the front line at Toshkivka, it will mean that Russian forces will have to tighten the noose from the southbound, reducing the area so that Ukrainian troops can maneuver inside their pockets. It would also allow Russian forces to threaten the few remaining Ukrainian supply routes to Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk.

The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky said earlier this month that the future of much of eastern Ukraine will be decided in the battle for these two cities.

Ukraine’s decision to resist street fighting in Sievierodonetsk was a gamble from the start. His strategy has been to fight at close range in the city, where Russia cannot bring its great artillery advantage.

But the city’s soldiers, and those who support them in the neighboring city of Lysychansk, on the western bank of the Siversky Donets River, run the daily risk of being surrounded.

Lysychansk residents are waiting in an evacuation van on Sunday. Credit … Tyler Hicks / The New York Times

Russian artillery lines have hit Ukrainian roads, bridges and positions with what Ukrainian troops estimate are thousands of shells every day.

No matter how risky, Ukraine’s strategy has been to successfully link Russian forces and cause casualties, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister, said in an interview on Sunday.

“Right now, the main goal is to take advantage of the window of opportunity we have to completely exhaust the Russians in the Donbas,” he said.

Also, he added, it is better to fight now than not to retreat and then fight elsewhere further west.

“If we moved, they would die,” Mr. Zagorodnyuk. “It simply came to our notice then. It is not as if Putin wanted only Sievierodonetsk. They will continue until they stop. “

– Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Natalia Yermak and Andrew E. Kramer

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