SIEVIERODONETSK, Ukraine — A woman climbed down from the ambulance, wailing, her hands covered in blood. Police medics drew her inside their first aid post, as she appealed for help for her husband, who lay in the ambulance.
“Please, God, let him live,” the woman, Olha, said. “You cannot imagine what a person he is. He is a golden person.”
But the stretcher bearers were already standing down. Olha’s husband, Serhii, died at midday Tuesday, another victim of the relentless barrage of artillery and gunfire that Russian forces have rained down on this frontline town for three months.
Sievierodonetsk, a mining and industrial town, lies at the heart of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, which puts it squarely in Moscow’s cross hairs. Rebuffed in the capital, Kyiv, Russian forces have turned the full force of their efforts to the east, with the goal of seizing a large chunk of territory next to the Russian border, though it has come at some cost for them.
Sievierodonetsk is strategically critical for the Ukrainians, too, and they have spent weeks fiercely defending it. Earlier this month, Russian forces sustained heavy losses as they tried to cross the Seversky Donets River nearby and solidify their position.
In Sievierodonetsk, that has meant months of trauma as Moscow tries to encircle the town and lay siege to it. Russian forces are now in place on three sides.
Travel to Sievierodonetsk is perilous. To get here on Tuesday, a reporting team from The New York Times drove with a police escort through small villages and fields to avoid shell fire from Russian positions, and then sped across a single lane bridge that is the only route remaining into the town.
Debris from the Russian bombardment lay on almost every street.
The fins of rockets stuck out of craters in the asphalt. A broken electricity pylon and cables were draped across the street. And burned-out cars, shredded by shrapnel and sometimes overturned, lay abandoned wherever a blast had thrown them. A truck hung precariously off the side of a bridge.
For the police officers of Sievierodonetsk, it was just another day.
Officers have kept up a police presence in the town, as well as in the neighboring city of Lysychansk, running in supplies for the remaining townspeople, picking up the dead and wounded, and evacuating people away from the front line.
“A lot of them were nobodies, but when the war started they became heroes,” the police chief of the Luhansk region, Oleh Hryhorov, said of his officers. “A lot of them have stayed because they really understand this as their duty.”
Though much of the region that Chief Hryhorov is responsible for has been seized by Russian forces, he has managed to maintain a headquarters in Sievierodonetsk, and commands a force made up mainly of natives of the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk that Russia claims as its own. Many of them lost their homes eight years ago in the war in eastern Ukraine, and now have lost everything a second time, he said.
As the Ukrainian military…