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Ukraine Conflict

Explained: Why Ukraine’s Sievierodonetsk is so important

Print edition : Aug 06, 2022 T+T-

Explained: Why Ukraine’s Sievierodonetsk is so important

Embattled Sievierodonetsk.

Embattled Sievierodonetsk.

Sievierodonetsk is where pro-Russian separatism first started in the Donbas region almost 20 years ago.

Barely two 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 centre in the Donbas— the city of Sievierodonetsk. Reportedly, there is fighting in the streets, and Russian soldiers are said to have advanced to the city centre.

Sievierodonetsk and neighbouring Lyssychansk are the last major cities in the Luhansk area — the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are known collectively as the Donbas — still controlled by Kyiv. According to Ukraine’s General Staff, Russia is intent on capturing Sievierodonetsk. Ukrainian troops defending the region risk being trapped, as they were in Mariupol.

Chemical industry centre

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 river Siversky Donets in the 1950s.

Dmytro Firtasch, an oligarch and media magnate who settled in Austria in 2014 and is threatened with extradition to the US on suspicion of corruption, owns the Azot plant, which mainly produces fertilizers that for the most part are exported. 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 Lyssychansk was home to a Russian-owned oil refinery that has long since ceased operations.

Donbas separatism

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. Against the backdrop of the pro-Western Orange Revolution protests in the capital Kyiv, it threatened to declare autonomy, with Kharkiv as its centre and including eight eastern and southern Ukrainian regions as well as Crimea and Sevastopol.

Moscow mayor 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 threats in 2004. For many observers however, the meeting marks the first, albeit unsuccessful, attempt at a formal political split of Ukraine. The next attempt came ten 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 neighbouring cities Sievierodonetsk, Lysychansk and Rubishne.

The Ukrainian army liberated the region in July 2014, and Sievierodonetsk became the regional military-civil administration centre. Various institutions and universities moved there from Luhansk. In 2022 they moved again, this time to western Ukraine.

Strategic importance

Sievierodonetsk and neighbouring Lyssychansk are of strategic importance because this part of the Donbas connects with other regions of Ukraine. The main focus is on the highway connecting Lysychansk with Bakhmut in Donetsk region. It is used to supply the Ukrainian military. It was also used to evacuate civilians before the route became too dangerous because of shelling.

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.