The battle for the main eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk raged on Sunday with Russian forces conducting assault operations that led to street fighting with Ukraine defenders.
It was unclear if Severodonetsk – the focus of weeks of fierce fighting – had been encircled with some reports suggesting government troops repelled Russian soldiers during close-quarter combat. Regional officials reported Russian forces were “storming” the strategic eastern city.
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“With the use of artillery, Russian forces carried out assault operations in the area of the city of Severodonetsk,” the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said on Sunday in a statement. “The fighting continues.”
Inside Severodentsk, where an estimated 15,000 civilians remain, a local official said “constant shelling” made it increasingly difficult to get in or out.
“Evacuation is very unsafe, it’s isolated cases when we manage to get people out. Now the priority is for the wounded and people who need serious medical assistance,” said Oleksandr Striuk, head of the city’s military and civil administration.
The water supply was also increasingly tenuous as a lack of electricity meant the pumps at city wells no longer functioned, he said, adding residents had gone more than two weeks without mobile phone connections.
The sole road maintaining contact with the outside world, meanwhile, was expected to be the focus of continued Russian attacks, Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said late Saturday.
“Next week will be very hard as Russia puts all its resources into seizing Severodonetsk, or cutting off the oblast from communication with Ukraine,” he said.
Ukrainian troops may have to retreat from the city to avoid capture, said Haidai.
Ukrainian fighters repelled an assault on Severodonetsk but Russian troops still pushed to encircle them. Haidai reported later that Russian forces had seized a hotel on the city’s outskirts, damaged 14 high-rise buildings, and were battling on the streets with Ukrainian forces. Striuk said there was fighting at the city’s bus station.
Analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said the Russians had still not managed to encircle city and the Ukrainian defenders have inflicted “fearful casualties” on them.
But the Ukrainians were also taking serious losses themselves, civilian as well as combatants, they said in a briefing paper.
“Russian President Vladimir Putin is inflicting unspeakable suffering on Ukrainians and demanding horrible sacrifices of his own people in an effort to seize a city that does not merit the cost, even for him,” they said.
Russian gains in recent days in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas – comprising the Luhansk and Donetsk regions – point to a subtle momentum shift in the war, now in its fourth month.
Russia’s advance raised fears that residents could experience the same horrors seen in the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which endured a three-month siege before it fell last week.
Russian artillery was also pounding the Lysychansk-Bakhmut road, which Russia must take to close a pincer movement and encircle Ukrainian forces, and police said there was “significant destruction” in Lysychansk.
Russia’s defence ministry said its troops and allied separatist forces were in full control of the town of Lyman, the site of a railway junction west of the Siverskiy Donets River in the Donetsk. However, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Malyar, said the battle for Lyman continued.
Control of Lyman would give Russia’s military another foothold in the region. It has bridges for troops and equipment to cross the Siverskiy Donets River, which has so far impeded the Russian advance into the Donbas.
Severodonetsk is 60km (37 miles) from Lyman on the eastern side of the river and is the largest Donbas city still held by Ukraine.
‘Nothing to fight back with’
Ukrainian presidential adviser and peace negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak repeated a call for US-made long-range multiple-rocket launchers.
“It is hard to fight when you are attacked from 70km away and have nothing to fight back with … We need effective weapons,” Podolyak posted on Twitter.
Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoliy Antonov, said on Saturday that such a move would be “unacceptable” and admonished the White House to “abandon statements about the military victory of Ukraine”.
Having failed to capture the Ukrainian capital Kyiv early in the three-month-old war, the Russians set out to seize parts of the eastern industrial region Donbas not already controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
Russia says it is waging a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine and rid it of nationalists threatening Russian speakers there. Ukraine and Western countries say Russia’s claims are a false pretext for a war of aggression.
Thousands of people, including many civilians, have been killed and several million have fled their homes, either for safer parts of Ukraine or other countries.