Street fighting, constant shelling as Russia pushes for control of Ukraine's Donbas
Russia says it is on a mission to "liberate" the Donbas
KYIV (Reuters) - Ukrainian troops were engaged in fierce street fighting with Russian soldiers in the industrial city of Sievierodonetsk, while other towns were under constant shelling, as the Kremlin pushed for control of the eastern Donbas region.
Sievierodonetsk has become the main target of the Russian offensive in the Donbas, comprising Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, as the invasion grinds on in a war of attrition that has seen cities laid waste by artillery barrages.
"In the city, fierce street fighting continues," Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on Monday.
"They outnumber us, they are more powerful," Zelenskiy told reporters at a briefing. But Ukraine’s forces have "every chance" of fighting back, he added.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said Russia was also throwing troops and equipment into its drive to capture the largest remaining Ukrainian-held city in Luhansk.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said earlier on Monday the situation had worsened after Ukrainian defenders had pushed back the Russians over the weekend as they seemed close to victory.
In its nightly update, the Ukrainian military said two civilians were killed in Russian shelling in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on Monday and that Russian forces had fired at more than 20 communities.
In addition to artillery shelling, the enemy fired from planes and helicopters in the Donetsk region, Ukraine’s general staff said on Tuesday.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield reports. Russia denies targeting civilians in the conflict.
Russia says it is on a mission to "liberate" the Donbas - partly held by separatist proxies of Moscow since 2014 - after Ukrainian forces pushed its troops back from the capital Kyiv and Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv in the war’s early stages.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, but calls its action a "special military operation" to stamp out what it sees as threats to its security. Ukraine and its Western allies call this a baseless pretext for a war to grab territory that risks turning into a wider European conflict.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said on Monday that Russian forces were also advancing towards Sloviansk, which lies about 85 km (53 miles) to the west of Sievierodonetsk.
"The front line is under constant shelling," Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told Ukrainian television.
"The enemy is also shelling near Lyman with the aim of wrecking our defensive positions and advancing on Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. There is also shelling of Svyatohirsk with the same aim," he added.
Kyrylenko said efforts were underway to evacuate people from several towns, some under day and night attack, including Sloviansk which has about 24,000 residents still there.
"People are now understanding, though it is late, that it is time to leave," he said.
Britain’s defence ministry said on Twitter on Tuesday that Russia’s broader plan likely continues to be to cut off the Sievierodonetsk area from both the north and the south.
Russia’s progress made through May on the southern Popasna axis has stalled over the last week, while reports of heavy shelling near Izium suggests Russia was preparing to make a renewed effort on the northern axis, the ministry said.
"Russia will almost certainly need to achieve a breakthrough on at least one of these axes to translate tactical gains to operational level success and progress towards its political objective of controlling all of Donetsk Oblast," it said.
Reuters could not immediately verify the ministry’s report.
In a move coordinated with the United States, Britain said it would supply Ukraine with multiple-launch rocket systems that can strike targets up to 80 km (50 miles) away, providing the more precise, long-range firepower needed to reach Russian artillery batteries.
Zelenskiy said Kyiv was gradually receiving "specific anti-ship systems", and that these would be the best way to end a Russian blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports preventing grain exports.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would respond to Western deliveries of long-range weapons by pushing Ukrainian forces further back from Russia’s border.
On Sunday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia would strike new targets if the West supplied longer-range missiles. The same day, Russian missiles hit Kyiv for the first time in more than a month.
The United States, which reopened its embassy in Kyiv in May after an almost three-month closure, said its embassy posture in the Ukrainian capital remains unchanged.
Western countries have imposed sanctions of unprecedented sweep and severity on Russia over its invasion.
On Monday, Russia’s foreign ministry said it had slapped personal sanctions on 61 U.S. officials including the treasury and energy secretaries and leading defence and media executives. The move, it said, was in retaliation for "constantly expanding U.S. sanctions".