PAVEL POLITYUK and ABDELAZIZ BOUMZAR
UKRAINIAN forces pulled back to the outskirts of the industrial city of Sievierodonetsk in the face of a fierce Russian assault, the regional governor said, another big swing in momentum in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
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 vowed to fight there for as long as possible, saying the battle could help shape the war’s future course.
After claiming to have pushed Russian forces back and secured half of the city in a surprise counter-attack last week, the governor of the surrounding Luhansk region said on Wednesday afternoon that 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 … it is impossible to say the Russians completely control the city,” Serhiy Gaidai told the RBC-Ukraine media outlet.
He predicted earlier that Russian forces would step up their bombardment of both Sievierodonetsk and its smaller twin city of Lysychansk on the west bank of the Siverskyi Donets River.
Ukrainian police released footage showing the evacuation of elderly people from Lysychansk. Evacuations had been cut for nearly a week by shelling of the main road out.
Russian forces have 10 times more equipment than Ukrainian troops in some areas of Sievierodonetsk, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk told a briefing. 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.
Reuters could not independently verify the situation on the ground in Sieverodonetsk.
Moscow says it is engaged in a “special military operation” to disarm and “denazify” its neighbour. Ukraine and its allies say Moscow has launched an unprovoked war of aggression, killing thousands of civilians and flattening cities. United Nations figures show more than 7 million people have crossed the border from Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24.
‘GOD SAVED ME’
Luhansk and the adjacent province of Donetsk form the Donbas, claimed by Moscow for its proxies who have held eastern parts of the region since 2014. Moscow has been attacking the Ukrainian-held part of the Donbas from the north, east and south in an effort to encircle Ukrainian forces in the area.
West of Siervierodonetsk in Sloviansk, one of the main Donbas cities still held by Ukraine, 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 around 24,000 remain in the city, in the path of an expected assault by Russian forces regrouping to the north.
Albina Petrovna, 85, described the moment her building was caught in an attack, which left her windows shattered and her balcony destroyed.
“Broken glass fell on me but God saved me, I have scratches everywhere…,” she said.
Russia has turned its focus to the Donbas since its forces were defeated on the outskirts of Kyiv in March.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office said two people were killed and two wounded in the Luhansk region in the past 24 hours, five civilians were wounded in the Donetsk region, and four killed and 11 wounded in the Kharkiv region.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, residents were cleaning up rubble from shelling the previous day. Ukraine pushed Russian forces back last month from the city’s outskirts, but Russia still strikes it sporadically.
CCTV footage showed the moment late on Tuesday when a suspected missile struck a shopping mall that included a supermarket, scattering debris and goods. Footage filmed from a drone showed a gaping hole in the roof of the large building.
“The supporting pillars are completely destroyed,” said supermarket manager Svitlana Diulina, adding that nobody had been hurt in the attack.
‘BOOK OF EXECUTIONERS’
Zelenskiy said Ukraine would launch next week a “Book of Executioners” to detail war crimes.
Ukraine has opened more than 16,000 investigations into possible war crimes, filed eight court cases and identified 104 suspects, its prosecutor general said. Moscow rejects accusations its forces have committed crimes.
Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest exporters of grain, and Western countries accuse Russia of creating a risk of global famine by blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Moscow says Western sanctions are responsible for food shortages.
Turkey, a NATO member with good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, has been trying to broker negotiations to open up the Ukrainian Black Sea ports. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks and said a U.N.-backed deal on the ports was possible with further negotiations.
Lavrov said the Ukrainian ports could be opened, but Ukraine would have to de-mine them first. Ukraine dismissed Russia’s assurances as “empty words” and cited Russian attacks on farmland and agricultural sites in the south as exacerbating the crisis.
The Russian-installed administration in the occupied part of Zaporizhzhia region in southern Ukraine plans to stage a referendum later this year on joining Russia, Russian news agencies reported. Russian-installed officials in Kherson province further west have announced similar plans.
Ukraine and its Western allies regard any planned referendums in occupied areas as illegal and proof that Russia’s true aim is territorial conquest.