Severodonetsk was Kiev’s biggest fortress in the region, but when its troops realized the game was up they took revenge on the city
from thefreeonline on 23rd April 2023 by Arseniy Kotov, independent photojournalist for Western Censored News Site
A man cycling near the ‘Azot’ chemical plant. Severodonetsk, Lugansk People’s Republic, March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
Severodonetsk is perhaps not as well known as other Donbass cities such as Mariupol, Artyomovsk (Bakhmut), Donetsk, or Lugansk. However, the battles waged there in the spring of last year were significant for both Russia and Ukraine.
For over eight years, this industrial hub with a population of around 100,000 – in the western part of the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) – was a stronghold of Kiev’s military. This happened despite the feelings of its residents – in fact, back in 2014, it was in Severodonetsk and nearby Lisichansk that the Lugansk militia was formed under the leadership of field commanders Pavel Dremov and Aleksey Mozgovoy.
At that time, local forces could not retain control of the city, whose residents voted for independence from Ukraine in a 2014 referendum. On July 22, that year, Kiev’s forces captured Severodonetsk, and for almost eight years it was under Ukrainian control. But on June 25, 2022, the situation changed.
This time, President Vladimir Zelensky’s troops were forced to beat a hasty retreat while Russian soldiers and the People’s Militia of the LPR took advantage. A week later, LPR authorities announced the complete liberation of the republic.
However, for Severodonetsk, that wasn’t the end of the story. Over the past ten months, aided by Russia’s central and regional authorities, the city has been recovering from the scars left by fierce battles.
A view of Severodonetsk in the evening, with the “Azot” chemical plant pipes visible in the background. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
How Ukrainian forces destroyed the city
Although Severodonetsk was spared from battles as bloody as the ones that shook the likes of Mariupol, destruction is visible throughout the city. The Azot chemical plant – often compared to Mariupol’s Azovstal because Ukrainian servicemen and foreign mercenaries similarly went into hiding there – was practically unharmed.
The damaged cooling tower of the Azot plant, visible in the background. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
Azot did not suffer the same fate as Azovstal because to avoid being surrounded by Russian troops, Ukrainian forces were forced to retreat. On their way out, they intentionally left the city in ruins. Locals told me how a Ukrainian tank stood at an intersection and fired in all directions at the surrounding houses.
Whenever possible, Ukrainians use a scorched-earth policy, destroying towns and villages during their retreat. As a result, the economy and infrastructure are completely destroyed and restoration requires huge investment.
A burnt-out Ukrainian tank near Severodonetsk. December 2022. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
In addition to the plant and residential areas, Ukrainian troops also used social facilities, including educational institutions, as places of deployment.
One of them was School No.4, located in the city’s 79th Microdistrict. The presence of Ukrainian troops was evident from the improvised pillboxes in the basements, reinforced with sandbags.
School No. 14 library, used as a stronghold of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
Many educational facilities in Severodonetsk remain abandoned. So far, construction workers from Russia have managed to rebuild only a few schools and kindergartens. Presently, about 1,400 children study in these facilities.
A Soviet-era mosaic left behind from a burnt-down ice stadium, destroyed by the retreating Ukrainian troops. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
On leaving the city, the Ukrainians moved all their forces to neighboring Lisichansk and attacked Severodonetsk from there. Presently, the front line is 30km away from the city. Despite the distance, thundering artillery is audible day and night. Today, shells no longer reach Severodonetsk, but many houses and streets attacked last summer have been damaged beyond repair.
The ruins of residential buildings on Avtomobilnaya St. in the western part of Severodonetsk. December 2022. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
Both the city and its suburbs were destroyed as a result of the attacks. During their retreat at the end of June 2022, Ukrainian forces blew up a bridge to stop the advance of Russian troops. However, damaging the infrastructure did not help the Ukrainian army – Lisichansk, located on the opposite side of the Seversky Donets River, was occupied by Russian forces by early July.
A bridge over the Seversky Donets River near the village of Sinetsky, a suburb of Severodonetsk. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
The retreat wasn’t an easy one for the Ukrainians, as evidenced by the scorched armored vehicles cluttered around the suburbs of Severodonetsk.
A burnt-out Ukrainian tank near Severodonetsk. December 2022. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
In one of Severodonetsk’s most severely damaged neighborhoods, I met a man carrying buckets of water home. As it turned out, his apartment was the only one left intact in his part of the building. He lived on the ninth floor together with his wife, daughter, and parents. The man constructed a wood-burning stove for heating and connected the wiring in his apartment to the nearest functioning power line.
The last resident of one of the destroyed apartment buildings in Severodonetsk. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
His family was very friendly. The daughter played the accordion for us, and the parents offered us tea with sandwiches and sweets.
An apartment in Severodonetsk. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
He said that during the fighting, Ukrainian military equipment had been placed in the yard. Troops had lived in the basements and dug trenches between the buildings, waiting for the arrival of the Russian army. However, after the first shelling, Ukrainian troops left the new trenches and moved to the western part of the city.
He witnessed a Ukrainian tank firing directly at his building during the retreat, destroying all the neighboring apartments. Despite the danger, he did not leave his house and waited for Russian troops to arrive. Few residents were so bold as to remain at home.
The owner of the apartment shows the location of the Ukrainian tank that attacked his building. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
“This tank here, that you see in the arch, it got stuck. It was backing out of the arch, fired a shot and hid, attracting retaliatory fire on the residential building. The soil here is sand and clay, so it got stuck – they tried to pull it out with another tank, then with two – but it didn’t move. Then our men (Russians) burnt it!” he said.
How the city is coming back to life
I first visited Severodonetsk in December 2022, when I was delivering humanitarian aid to the residents of the LPR. The city was abandoned and looked really depressing. Knowing that fierce battles were inevitable, most civilians evacuated in advance.
A view of the Gvardeyskiy Prospect – one of the city’s central streets. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
Abandoned pets still live in destroyed buildings and deserted houses. Some are fed by neighbors, others hunt for food on their own.
The pets of Severodonetsk. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
Presently, most refugees stuck on the Ukrainian side of the border, cannot return home – Kiev’s troops refuse to allow anyone to cross into Russia. The only way home is a long route through Poland, Latvia, and Belarus.
A rare sight of children walking in the yard. Severodonetsk, 79th Microdistrict. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
Some of the locals, most of them elderly people, decided to stay in their homes. They hid in basements from the constant shelling. Some consumed leftover stocks of food, while others found food in abandoned houses and apartments. Eyewitnesses say that the fighting in the eastern part of the city lasted about a month.
Inside one of the abandoned apartments © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
I came to Severodonetsk for the second time at the end of March, visiting a friend who had returned home after a stay in Russia. He is now trying to restore his business, which was destroyed by Ukrainian troops. Before the conflict, he had a cargo transportation company, but all his trucks were seized by Ukrainian soldiers without any reimbursement.
‘Bazar’ – a supermarket in Severodonetsk that opened at the beginning of 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
Severodonetsk’s first reopened large supermarket began to operate just recently and is popular with locals. Some residents still don’t have jobs, but people get small social benefits from Moscow as residents of the liberated LPR territories. Elderly people receive their pensions.
Residents in the village of Sinetsky (a suburb of Severodonetsk) sit on a bench, waiting for the arrival of a car distributing pensions. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
The village of Sinetsky is located next to the Seversky Donets River. Geographically, it is closer to Lisichansk, which is on the opposite bank. The village and city used to be connected by a bridge, but when the Ukrainians blew it up during their retreat, people were cut off from Lisichansk. Meanwhile, the nearest store is 10km away in Severodonetsk. Volunteers provide some help by delivering humanitarian aid to the residents.
“My children are all grown up, they got stuck on the other side. They were evacuated by the Ukrainians and now they are staying with relatives, hiding from conscription. There’s no way for them to come back – if you cross the border, you’ll get caught and sent to the front. So they sit and wait. We can’t even call them now. The last time we talked was in December, but then the connection was cut off and we don’t even know what’s going on with them,” said one resident.
A resident of Severodonetsk. December 2022 © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
When the weather was at its coldest in December, many senior citizens remained in the city. They refused to leave their homes during the battles and their aftermath. Together with a group of volunteers, I delivered heaters to them. By March, when the electrical and water supply were restored in most parts of Severodonetsk, young people began returning to the city.
From a window, a mother watches her children walking in the yard. The central district of Severodonetsk, March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
Now that it’s spring, other signs of a return to ‘normal life’ are visible throughout Severodonetsk – public transport is operating again, utility service employees are busy working, and people go about their business on the city streets.
The city’s first public transport route was re-launched at the end of 2022. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
Public service employees throw sand over an ice-covered road during the time of winter frosts. December 2022. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
Residents of other Russian regions – including those that signed official agreements with the LPR to assist in the restoration of Severodonetsk – are helping to restore the city.
Construction workers replace the roofing on apartment buildings in the city’s central district. December 2022. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
The damage caused by the fighting often slows down the reconstruction work. For example, a damaged pylon which I photographed back in December was fixed only in the spring. The repair of power lines was impeded by minefields, which had to be cleared by Russian sappers before work could begin.
A broken pylon at the entrance to the city. Photo: December, 2022. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
The reconstruction work in Severodonetsk isn’t proceeding as quickly as in Mariupol. However, throughout the city damaged houses are being repaired, roofs are being replaced, and new windows are being installed. Schools and public buildings have reopened.
Construction work in Severodonetsk. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
Barracks for construction workers in one of the yards of Severodonetsk. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
One of the city’s key sites is the Holy Nativity of Christ Cathedral. Currently under reconstruction, it is being used for humanitarian aid distribution. Volunteers deliver humanitarian aid to the clergy, who distribute it to all those in need. There is also a warming center near the church, where people can drink tea with sweets for free. It was set up thanks to volunteers from Perm. On cold winter days, centers like this are in great demand.
A view of the Holy Nativity of Christ Cathedral in Severodonetsk © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
Ruins of a chapel at the entrance to the city; the abbess of a convent in the south of the city; a church damaged by shelling in Severodonetsk. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
When night falls, the rare remaining windows in Severodonetsk light up. Back in the fall of 2022, there was no electricity, gas, or heating in the city. Now, thanks to the efforts of locals and construction workers from other Russian regions, life is improving and residents are slowly coming back to the city.
A view of Severodonetsk in the evening. March 2023. © RT / Arseniy Kotov, special report for RT
by Arseniy Kotov, independent photojournalist
see also: MARIUPOL IN PHOTOS: How the battle-scarred city has changed after eight months under Russian control
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