Just a few weeks after the last Ukrainian soldiers in the port city of Mariupol surrendered to the Russian army in hopes of a prisoner swap, Ukraine may lose yet another major center in the Donbas— the city of Sievierodonetsk.
Sievierodonetsk and neighboring Lysychansk are the last major cities in the Luhansk area — the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are known collectively as the Donbas — are now partly controlled by Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the "fierce battle" for Sievierodonetsk is one of the hardest in the entire war and would determine the fate of the Donbas region.
After Russian forces took control of Mariupol, fears are high among Ukrainians that another such siege could take place in Sievierodonetsk, where the mayor says some 10,000 civilians remain despite having become the focus of the Russian forces' offensive in Ukraine.
Chemical industry center
Before the war, the city had a population of about 100,000. In the Soviet era, a settlement near the Azot chemical plant, the largest in Ukraine, grew to become a new city. Not far from Luhansk, Donetsk and Kharkiv, it was named Sievierodonetsk after the Siversky Donets river in the 1950s.
Dmytro Firtasch, an oligarch and media magnate who settled in Austria in 2014 and is threatened with extradition to the United States on suspicion of corruption, owns the Azot plant, which mainly produced fertilizers exported to many parts of the world.
Like many other factories in the region, the Azot plant in recent years grappled with suspended production due to the conflict in the Donbas. Sievierodonetsk is home to several other chemical plants, too, while Lysychansk was home to a Russian-owned oil refinery that has long since ceased operations.
Donbas separatism started in Sievierodonetsk
Sievierodonetsk is also known for the fact that the first attempt to divide Ukraine was made there almost 20 years ago. On November 28, 2004, the so-called All-Ukrainian Congress of Deputies of All Levels convened in the city, attended mainly by representatives of the pro-Russian Party of Regions.
The party, formed in the Donbas, dominated the region. As the pro-Western Orange Revolution protests took place in the streets of the capital, Kyiv, the party threatened to declare autonomy, with Kharkiv as its center and including eight eastern and southern Ukrainian regions as well as Crimea and Sevastopol.
Moscow's mayor at the time, Yuri Luzhkov, who had worked at the Azot plant when he was a young man, was a featured speaker at the 2004 congress. Later, Luzhkov was made an honorary citizen of Sievierodonetsk, at a time when the Ukrainian authorities had already banned him from entering the country for making separatist statements concerning Sevastopol.
The initiators of the All-Ukrainian Congress didn't go beyond general statements in 2004. For many observers, however, the meeting marked the first, albeit unsuccessful, attempt at a formal political split from Ukraine.
The next attempt came 10 years later, in the spring and summer of 2014. After the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, armed local separatists from Russia occupied the three eastern Ukrainian cities of Sievierodonetsk, Lysychansk and Rubishne.
The Ukrainian army liberated the region in July 2014, and Sievierodonetsk became the regional military-civil administration center. Various institutions and universities moved there from Luhansk. In 2022, they moved again, this time to western Ukraine.
Sievierodonetsk and neighboring Lysychansk are of strategic importance because they connect this part of Donbas with other regions of Ukraine. The main focus is on the highway between Lysychansk and Bakhmut, as it is used to supply the Ukrainian military. It was also used to evacuate civilians before shelling made the route too dangerous for civilians.
Capturing Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk would allow the Russian army to reach the region's administrative border. From there, the Russian army could advance further west toward Kramatorsk, another administrative center in the Donetsk region. Kramatorsk is one of the last major industrial cities still fully controlled by Kyiv in the Donbas.
This article was originally written in Russian.