LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — Just to maneuver about city, Ukrainian troopers speed up to breakneck speeds in their SUVs, screech round corners, zip into courtyards, then pile out and run for canopy.

“They see us and they open fire,” Colonel Yuriy Vashchuk mentioned of the want to maneuver shortly or change into a weak goal for Russian artillery. “There’s no place in this town that is safe.”

He was careering round on the excessive floor of Lysychansk, throughout the river from Sievierodonetsk, the website of the fiercest preventing in Ukraine’s East. To be ready, he positioned a hand grenade in the cup holder between the entrance seats of his automobile. A field of pistol ammunition slid forwards and backwards on the dashboard as he drove.

Signs of Ukraine’s tenuous army positions are all over the place: On the hills overlooking Sievierodonetsk, smoke from a dozen or so fires testify to weeks of seesaw city fight. The single provide path to the west is plagued by burned autos, hit by Russian artillery.

The clanging, metallic explosions of incoming shells ring out each couple of minutes.

These two cities, separated by the Seversky Donets River, have change into the point of interest of the battle in the East, although weeks of bombardment have pushed away most civilians, and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine not too long ago referred to them as “useless cities.’’

Russia’s purpose is evident: It goals to seize the cities, even when which means flattening them, and proceed its march westward.

Yet Ukraine’s technique there stays unclear. Analysts say Sievierodonetsk, with its empty streets and hollowed-out buildings, is of restricted army significance, and in latest days, Mr. Zelensky has spoken each of the deserves of pulling again and the longer-term dangers of doing so.

On Wednesday night time, he swung again towards emphasizing its significance, framing the preventing right here as pivotal to the broader battle for the area. “In some ways, the destiny of our Donbas is being determined there,” he mentioned in his nightly speech to the nation.

“We defend our positions, inflict significant losses on the enemy,” Mr. Zelensky mentioned. “This is a very fierce battle, very difficult. Probably one of the most difficult throughout this war.”

Still, the authorities’s combined indicators emerged once more on Thursday when Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s protection minister, made a determined plea for extra highly effective weapons. “We have proved that, unlike many others, we do not fear the Kremlin,’’ he said. “But as a country we cannot afford to be losing our best sons and daughters.”

He warned that as many as 100 Ukrainian troopers have been being killed daily.

Indeed, the preventing on the plains in japanese Ukraine has change into a race between Russia’s tactic of making gradual, methodical advances that acquire floor at the same time as they scale back cities to rubble and kill untold numbers, and the supply — far too gradual, Ukrainians say — of highly effective Western weapons wanted to halt the invaders.

The Ukrainian army and authorities at the moment are making no secret of the challenges they face in the East, three and a half months after Russia invaded. Their every day updates that spotlight actual setbacks are atypically sincere by the requirements of army press places of work, a tactic maybe supposed so as to add a way of urgency to their every day requires heavy Western weaponry

Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Russia has additionally been shifting swiftly to punish Ukrainian troopers captured on the battlefield.

On Thursday, two Britons and a Moroccan who fought for the Ukrainian army have been sentenced to loss of life by a courtroom in a Russian-occupied area of japanese Ukraine, after they have been accused of being mercenaries, Russia’s Interfax information company reported.

The loss of life sentences for the males — Aiden Aslin, 28, and Shaun Pinner, 48, of Britain and Brahim Saadoun of Morocco — alarmed human rights advocates and raised questions on the protections for hundreds of foreign-born fighters serving in Ukraine, some of whom have been taken prisoner.

In Russia, investigators mentioned on Thursday that they’d opened 1,100 instances of potential “crimes against peace” dedicated by captured Ukrainian service members, presumably paving the approach for a mass present trial.

The preventing in Sievierodonetsk has come all the way down to bloody, block-by-block fight, although a senior Ukrainian official, Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky, instructed Thursday that Russia could have partially withdrawn to clear the battlefield for additional artillery bombardments.

Sievierodonetsk lies on the principally flat, japanese financial institution of the river and the Ukrainian forces’ sole provide line is {a partially} obstructed bridge. Two different bridges have been blown up earlier in the preventing. On the river floodplain beneath one of the ruined bridges lies the upside-down wreck of a truck that plunged when the span was destroyed.

On the excessive, western financial institution is the metropolis of Lysychansk. The two cities type a single metropolitan space, separated solely by the river. Lysychansk, on the excessive financial institution, is seen as a extra defensible fallback place for the Ukrainians preventing in this space.

In Lysychansk, asphalt chunks, sheared-off tree branches and different particles from shelling litter the metropolis’s streets, which have been in any other case principally empty on a go to this week. Broken energy strains droop from poles. At one spot, an unexploded Russian rocket juts out of a sidewalk.

Across the river, the streets in Sievierodonetsk have been at moments eerily quiet, at different occasions a cacophony of gunshots and explosions.

Rapid hearth from the large-caliber weapons on armored personnel carriers, sounding like a jackhammer at work, echoed round the space.

Just a few miles to the west, one other battle is raging throughout a pastoral panorama of rolling steppe and small villages, as Russian forces attempt to lower provide strains, encompass the two cities and lure the Ukrainian fighters there. The two armies regularly hearth artillery at one another, with the Russians getting the higher hand for now.

A maze of rural again roads is now the solely route in for the Ukrainians, and it’s weak to Russian artillery. In a discipline a number of hundred yards off a street on Wednesday, a Ukrainian army automobile burned and despatched up a plume of black smoke.

“They are trying to make a circle, to trap all soldiers inside and destroy them,” mentioned Mariana Bezugla, the deputy head of the Security, Defense and Intelligence Committee in Ukraine’s Parliament.

The army doesn’t disclose troop numbers, however Ms. Bezugla mentioned a number of thousand Ukrainian troopers at the moment are deployed in the space in danger of being surrounded.

Ms. Bezugla wears a army uniform and gold-tinted aviator glasses whereas driving about in a van as soon as used as an armored automobile for a financial institution. She has been residing in the potential encirclement zone for the previous two weeks, she mentioned, working to make sure that army support to Ukraine is just not misused. That situation is prone to rise in significance as billions of {dollars} in Western support arrives.

That weaponry is flowing in, however not reaching the entrance shortly. Poland has promised tanks and armored autos, in keeping with the Polish authorities. Norway has despatched self-propelled howitzers, together with spare components and ammunition. The United States and allies despatched towed howitzers. And earlier this month, the United States and Britain promised superior, cellular, multi-rocket launchers, what the Ukrainian army has mentioned it must hit Russian targets removed from the entrance.

But it’s unclear how a lot of it has arrived in the locations it’s most wanted, and whether or not it will likely be sufficient.

“I cannot say that I am satisfied with the tempo and quantity of weapon supplies. Absolutely not,” mentioned Mr. Reznikov, the minister of protection. “But at the same time, I am extremely ​grateful to the countries that support us.”

Ms. Bezugla mentioned she was additionally grateful. “But for me, it’s hard to understand why help is given in doses, just enough to survive but not enough to win,” she mentioned. “It worries me. Our people are dying every day here.”

Out in a discipline of inexperienced wheat shoots, one signal of the want for extra American army support was the blown-up particles of earlier help. An American M777 howitzer had misplaced an artillery duel; it was blasted into a number of blackened, charred items amid craters from Russian artillery.

Reporting was contributed by Oleksandr Chubko from Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Marc Santora from Warsaw, Michael Levenson from New York, Dan Bilefsky from Montreal, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia and Valerie Hopkins from Chernihiv, Ukraine.

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