The city of Severodonetsk was built around the vast Azot fertilizer plant. Today, the factory has become home to many of the town’s remaining residents, who were forced to hide in bunkers below to escape relentless shelling by Russian forces.
“I try to persuade people to leave, but they stay, many still in the bomb shelters of the Azot plant,” said Arif Bagirov, a city activist who described by telephone on Friday what looks like daily life as Russia presses its offensive into eastern Ukraine.
Moscow announced the start of the new offensive in the eastern Donbass region nearly two weeks ago, but has yet to mark any major territorial advances.
“We would assess that Russian forces are progressing slowly and unevenly and, frankly, we would describe it as gradual progress in Donbass,” a senior US defense official said Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operational details.
Russia, following a Soviet-era strategy, relies on artillery to pound Ukrainian forces along a 300-mile front. According to military analysts, Ukrainian forces cede small plots of territory and then take them back.
On Friday, Russia announced gains in several cities, and the Ukrainians said they had regained control of a strategically important settlement on the highway that leads from Kharkiv to Belgorod in Russia.
As well as giving Ukrainians control of a stretch of highway critical to Russia’s supply lines, the suburb of Ruska Lozova had been used by Russian forces to fire artillery shells at civilian buildings in Kharkiv . Residents who left the village on Friday, however, said the Russians were fighting back and the village was still fiercely contested.
Assessing Russia’s and Ukraine’s claims in the Donbass is difficult because fighting has limited the ability of journalists to travel to the region. So far, the only major town in the region to be seized by the Russians is Izium, south of Kharkiv, which is now a key logistical anchor for Russian forces trying to push south.
Much of the heaviest fighting in recent days has taken place along the same frontline that divided Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists after Moscow orchestrated the region’s rebellion against the Ukrainian government. in 2014.
This includes Severodonetsk, which fell under Russian occupation in June 2014 and was liberated a month later. It remains under Ukrainian control and the city, built on sandy soil and surrounded by pine forests, served as the temporary capital of the Lugansk region. (Separatists control the city of Luhansk.)
Since the first day of the war, Severodonetsk has suffered almost constant Russian bombardment, leaving it in ruins and largely abandoned.
It is estimated that 70% of all buildings are damaged. Only 20,000 of the 100,000 inhabitants remain, and many leave their bunkers only to go to distribution centers to collect food. According to Román Vasylenko, head of the Severodonetsk regional military civil administration, Russian shells recently landed near people queuing to receive food. He said many had been injured but did not give an exact toll. Now, he said, many people are too scared to even venture out to look for food.
Mr. Vasylenko’s administration covers six currently disputed towns and cities. The Russians took control of the Kreminna and partially occupied Rubizhne and Popasna, he said. Severodonetsk, Lysychansk and Hirske remain under Ukrainian control.
Mr. Bagirov, the local activist, said he was trying to focus on the positive. As he made his rounds to deliver food, he saw people outside tending to their gardens as shelling sounded on the outskirts of town. “Different people experience this war differently,” he said. With shells exploding day and night, he said he knew death could come at any moment. But, he added, he will die with honor. And if the Russians enter the city, he says, he has only one choice. He will fight.