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Why the City of Lysychansk Is a Big Prize in Putin’s War Strategy

Russia’s complete control of the Ukrainian city of Lysychansk appears to be a foregone conclusion: Soviet flags are flying in the center and Ukrainian troops have withdrawn.

Moscow is boasting of victory, in statements that make clear that the battle there was about far more than one city. Its capture gives Russia a key victory in its drive to seize the entire Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Donbas, which comprises the territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, is a prize for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. After failing to topple Ukraine’s government in Kyiv, Mr. Putin refocused his military campaign on the Donbas, which makes up about 9 percent of Ukraine’s land but holds significance for its industry, location and potential as a bargaining chip for Moscow.

The Donbas borders Russia and runs from outside Mariupol in the south to the northern border near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Home to coal mines and steel, an estimated 6.2 million people lived in the region before Russia’s invasion, according to the most recent census data.

Kremlin-backed separatists have held territory in the Donbas since 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, a move that Ukraine and its Western allies have termed illegal. The proxy forces seized more than a third of the Donbas at the time and proclaimed the formation of two breakaway republics; they have been waging a civil war against Ukraine’s government ever since.

More than 14,000 people died in Donbas fighting between 2014 and last year. But the battle was effectively at a stalemate — albeit one with sporadic and deadly shelling along the roughly 250-mile front line known as the line of contact — until Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Now Russian forces and their separatist allies control about 80 to 90 percent of the Donbas, according to Ukrainian officials.

To take complete control of Luhansk, Russia first devoted its full force at the city of Sievierodonetsk, just across the river from Lysychansk. After battering that city and eventually seizing control on June 24, Russian forces set their sights on neighboring Lysychansk.

The twin cities were the last major population centers in Luhansk Province under Ukrainian control. Now with both in hand, Russia effectively controls all of the resource-rich region and can regroup — with Donetsk in its cross hairs.

Controlling Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk means Russia could position its forces to mount offensives on cities to the southwest, notably Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut.

Kramatorsk is one of the last major cities still under Ukrainian control in Donetsk. If Kramatorsk falls, Mr. Putin’s forces will in effect control the whole Donbas region.

That’s critical from a supply standpoint as well as a symbolic one. Mr. Putin could claim a tangible military victory and use the territory as leverage in any future peace negotiations with Ukraine. Holding the Donbas would also expand Moscow’s “land bridge” connecting Russian territory to Crimea.

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