Ukrainian troops have been pushed back in the eastern city of Severodonetsk by constant bombardment from Russian forces, and now only control its outskirts, according to a regional official.
Russia has concentrated its troops and firepower on the small eastern city in recent weeks to secure the surrounding province on behalf of separatist proxies. Ukraine has promised to fight there for as long as possible, saying the battle could help shape the war’s future course.
“In many respects, the fate of the Donbas is being decided there,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an online address.
After claiming to have pushed Russian forces back and secured half of the city in a surprise counterattack last week, the governor of the surrounding Luhansk region said most of the city was again in Russian hands.
“… Our [forces] now again control only the outskirts of the city. But the fighting is still going on, our [forces] are defending Severodonetsk, it is impossible to say the Russians completely control the city,” Serhiy Haidai was quoted as saying by the RBC-Ukraine media outlet on Wednesday.
The regional administration also estimated Russia to have seized more than 98 percent of Luhansk, claimed by Moscow for its proxies who have held eastern parts of the region since 2014.
Haidai said long-range artillery supplied by the West would give Ukraine the firepower it needs to beat back Russian forces and capture Severodonetsk within days.
“As soon as we have long-range artillery to be able to conduct duels with Russian artillery, our special forces can clean up the city in two to three days,” the governor said in an interview distributed on his official social media channels on Thursday.
Ukraine has urged its Western allies to speed up the delivery of weapons, saying the situation would become very difficult for the country if Russia broke through its lines in the east.
Ukraine’s defence ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk told a briefing on Wednesday that Russian forces possess 10 times more equipment than Ukrainian troops in some areas of Severodonetsk.
Moscow has warned the West against providing Kyiv with weapons capable of hitting Russian territory and Ukraine’s allies have been reticent to abide by the request out of fear of being drawn into the conflict.
Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said Ukrainian forces still held the industrial zone and adjacent areas and that about 10,000 civilians remained in the city. Ukrainian police released footage showing the evacuation of elderly people from Lysychansk, some 10 kilometres away.
Evacuations had been cut for nearly a week by shelling of the main road out.
Russia shifted its focus to the eastern region of the Donbas, which includes Luhansk and Donetsk, after its forces were pushed back from Kyiv and other areas following the February 24 invasion.
In Sloviansk, one of the main Donbas cities still held by Ukraine, about 85km (52 miles) to the west of Severodonetsk, women with small children lined up to collect aid while other residents carried buckets of water across the city.
Most residents have fled but authorities say about 24,000 remain in the city, in the path of an expected assault by Russian forces regrouping to the north.
Moscow says it is engaged in a “special military operation” to disarm and “de-Nazify” its neighbour. Ukraine and allies call this a baseless pretext for a war that has killed thousands, flattened cities and forced millions of people to flee.
Grain exports stalled
Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, after meeting his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, said Moscow was ready to guarantee the safety of vessels carrying grain from Ukrainian ports, in cooperation with Turkey, but Ukraine must remove mines first.
“We are ready to do this in cooperation with our Turkish colleagues,” Lavrov told reporters in the Turkish capital, Ankara, amid stark warnings of grain shortages worldwide partly blamed on Russia’s invasion.
Meanwhile, Cavusoglu called Russian demands for an end to sanctions to help grain on to the world market “legitimate”.
“If we need to open up the international market to Ukrainian grain, we see the removal of obstacles standing in the way of Russia’s exports as a legitimate demand,” he said.
However, Ukraine said on Wednesday that it would not de-mine waters around the Black Sea port of Odesa to allow grain exports, citing the threat of Russian attacks on the city. Lavrov said Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally promised not to use the grain shipment issue to benefit Russia’s military operation.
At the request of the United Nations, Turkey has offered its services to escort maritime convoys from Ukrainian ports, despite the presence of mines, some of which have been detected near the Turkish coast.
The war’s economic effects continued to reverberate, with the World Bank cutting its global growth estimate to 2.9 percent, 1.2 percentage points below the January forecast, due largely to the invasion.