KYIV — Ukrainian forces endured heavy artillery barrages on Sunday as they held off Russian attempts to capture Sievierodonetsk, the largest city Kyiv still controls in the Luhansk region of the Donbas, Ukrainian officials said.
The shelling was so intense it was not possible to assess casualties and damage, Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said. Dozens of buildings have been destroyed in the past few days.
“The situation has extremely escalated,” Gaidai said.
The Ukrainian government meanwhile urged the West to provide it with more longer-range weapons in order to turn the tide in the war, now in its fourth month.
The battle for Sievierodonetsk, which lies on the eastern bank of the Siverskyi Donets River, is in the spotlight as Russia ekes out slow but solid gains in the Donbas, comprising of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Having failed to take the capital Kyiv in the early phase of the war, Russia is seeking to consolidate its grip on the Donbas, large parts of which are already controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
It has concentrated huge firepower on a small area – a contrast to earlier phases of the conflict when its forces were often spread thinly – bludgeoning towns and cities with artillery and air strikes.
Governor Gaidai said on Sunday that Russian forces had dug in at the Myr hotel on Sievierodonetsk’s northern edge.
“They cannot advance further into the city and are taking casualties, but we are not able right now to push them out of the hotel,” he said on Telegram.
Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington said the Russians had still not managed to encircle the city and the Ukrainian defenders have inflicted “fearful casualties” on them.
The Ukrainians were taking serious losses themselves, civilians as well as combatants, they said in a briefing paper.
Russia’s fixation on Sievierodonetsk had drawn resources from other battlefronts and as result they had made little progress elsewhere, the analysts said.
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine that aimed to seize and occupy the entire country has become a desperate and bloody offensive to capture a single city in the east while defending important but limited gains in the south and east,” they said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy – who has won widespread admiration in the West for his leadership in the conflict – visited Ukrainian troops on the frontlines in northeastern Kharkiv region on Sunday.
The trip marked his first official appearance outside Kyiv region since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24.
“You risk your lives for us all and for our country,” the president’s office quoted him as telling soldiers as he handed out commendations and gifts.
Ukrainian troops pushed Russian forces back from around Kharkiv earlier this month but the city has come under renewed artillery fire this week.
Earlier, Zelenskiy voiced hopes Ukraine’s allies would provide much-needed weapons and said he expected “good news” in the coming days.
Ukraine has started receiving Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Denmark and US self-propelled howitzers, his defense minister said on Saturday.
Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak repeated a call for US-made long-range multiple-rocket launchers. US officials have told Reuters such systems are actively being considered, with a decision possible in coming days.
Zelenskiy said in a television interview on Saturday he believed Russia would agree to talks if Ukraine could recapture all the territory it has lost since the invasion.
But he ruled out the idea of using force to win back all the land Ukraine has lost to Russia since 2014, which includes the southern peninsula of Crimea, annexed by Moscow that year.
“I do not believe that we can restore all of our territory by military means. If we decide to go that way, we will lose hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.
Russia says it is waging a “special military operation” to demilitarize 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 to safer parts of Ukraine or to abroad.
Elsewhere, Ukraine’s military command said its forces were counter-attacking in the southern Kherson region, most of which is occupied by Russia.
It said in its daily briefing that they had pushed back Russian troops and forced them to take “unfavorable defensive positions” near the Pivdennyi Buh River after a similar counter-attack the previous day in three villages on the border with the neighboring Mykolaiv region.
It gave no further details and Reuters was unable to verify the information.
The Mykolaiv regional administration said residential areas of Mykolaiv city had been shelled on Sunday morning, killing one civilian and wounding at least six.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Conor Humphries, Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv, David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Lidia Kelley in Melbourne; Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)