Ukrainian forces were holding out in Sievierodonetsk on Tuesday, resisting Russia’s all-out assault to capture a bombed-out wasteland that Moscow has made the principal objective of its invasion in recent days.
Both sides said Russian forces now controlled between a third and half of the city. Russia’s separatist proxies acknowledged that capturing it was taking longer than hoped, despite one of the biggest ground assaults of the war.
Western military analysts say Moscow has drained manpower and firepower from across the rest of the front to concentrate on Sievierodonetsk, hoping a massive offensive on the small industrial city will achieve one of its stated aims, to secure surrounding Luhansk province for separatist proxies.
“We can say already that a third of Sievierodonetsk is already under our control,” Russia’s TASS state news agency quoted Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the pro-Moscow Luhansk People’s Republic, as saying.
Fighting was raging in the city, but Russian forces were not advancing as rapidly as might have been hoped, he said, claiming that pro-Moscow forces wanted to “maintain the city’s infrastructure” and moving slowly because of caution around chemical factories.
The Ukrainian head of the city administration, Oleksandr Stryuk, said the Russians now controlled half of the city.
“Unfortunately … the city has been split in half. But at the same time the city still defends itself. It is still Ukrainian,” he said, advising those still trapped inside to stay in cellars.
Ukraine says Russia has destroyed all of the city’s critical infrastructure with unrelenting bombardment, followed by wave after wave of mass ground assault involving huge numbers of casualties.
Thousands of residents remain trapped. Russian forces are advancing towards the city centre, but slowly, regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said.
Gaidai said there did not appear to be a risk of Ukrainian forces being encircled, though they could ultimately be forced to retreat across the Siverskiy Donets river to Lysychansk, the twin city on the opposite bank.
Stryuk, head of the city administration, said evacuating civilians was no longer possible. Authorities cancelled efforts to evacuate residents after shrapnel killed a French journalist on Monday.
Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council aid agency which had long operated out of Sievierodonetsk, said he was “horrified” by its destruction.
“We fear that up to 12,000 civilians remain caught in crossfire in the city, without sufficient access to water, food, medicine or electricity. The near-constant bombardment is forcing civilians to seek refuge in bomb shelters and basements, with only few precious opportunities for those trying to escape.”
Elsewhere on the battlefield, there were few reports of major shifts. In the east, Ukraine says Moscow is trying to assault other areas along the main front, regrouping to press towards the city of Solviansk. In the south, Ukraine claimed in recent days to have pushed back Russian forces on a bank of the Inhulets River, a border of Russian-held Kherson province.