2022 – The Kremlin sees the political prize among the ruins of Severodonetsk in Ukraine. from Reuters

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A local citizen stands next to the ruins of an open market destroyed by a military strike as the Russian offensive on Ukraine continues on April 16, 2022 in Severodonetsk, Luhansk region, Ukraine. Photograph: Serhiy Nozhenko/Reuters

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Written by Conor Humphreys

Kyiv (Reuters) – The capture of a sleepy Soviet-era factory town in Ukraine’s industrial heartland has become the focus of Russia’s invasion as President Vladimir Putin tries to regain momentum after a failed bid to seize the capital, Kyiv.

If Russia could capture Sievierodonetsk and its smaller twin Lysychansk on the upper western bank of the Siverskyi Donets, it would keep all of Luhansk, the first Donbass provinces that Putin put at the center of his campaign.

Security experts say the city, largely reduced to rubble after months of attacks culminating in two weeks of intense bombing, offers few strategic advantages other than rail and road links.

But it has symbolic value as the administrative center of the part of Luhansk that remained under Ukrainian control when Russian-backed separatists seized the rest in 2014.

Ukrainian military analyst, Kostyantin Mashovets, said, “The capture of Severodonetsk and access to the borders of the Luhansk region will be more important for Russia’s leadership from a political point of view … than victory and the achievement of their military and political goals.”

Militarily, of course, it will make the situation worse for us, but it will not be decisive.”

Sievierodonetsk was established as a suburb of Lysychansk in 1934 during the second Soviet Five-Year Plan by Joseph Stalin to house workers in a chemical and fertilizer plant that still stands to this day as the Azot (nitrogen) plant.

For most of its history, it was a typical Soviet provincial town. Identical streets of high-rise apartments were dotted with parks and wide tree-lined avenues, while residents strolled near the Seversky Donets River and into the nearby forests.

When the separatists captured about a third of Luhansk province, including the capital of the same name, Severodonetsk became the administrative center of the Ukrainian-controlled part of the region.

It also became a hub for the Ukrainian army and relief organizations operating in the region. Many soldiers spent their spare time in the city when they were relieved from the front lines before the invasion bringing the conflict close.

District Governor Serhi Gayday said last week that from a peak of 110,000 people a decade ago, fewer than 15,000 remain in the city today.

He said the bombing in recent weeks had destroyed 90% of buildings in Severodonetsk and all vital infrastructure. He said 60% of housing needs to be reconstructed.

For now, the last remaining access and evacuation route, southwest towards the town of Pakhmut, is still open under Ukrainian control – though riddled with shell craters after several Russian attempts to seize it and isolate the twin towns.

“It’s my city, my home… I’m not going anywhere,” the head of the self-proclaimed shelter Tetiana told the Orienska Pravda news agency.

“There are still walls in my apartment,” she said. “I will have nothing – but I will live.”