Moscow-backed separatists pounded Ukraine’s eastern industrial Donbass region as Ukrainian officials pleaded for sophisticated Western weapons to stop the onslaught.
The advance of Russian forces raised fears that towns in the region could suffer the same horrors inflicted on residents of the port city of Mariupol in the weeks before its fall.
The fighting in the Donbass is focused on two key cities: Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk.
These are the last areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk, one of the two provinces that make up the Donbass and where Russian-backed separatists have already controlled certain territories for eight years.
Authorities say 1,500 people in Sievierodonetsk have already died since the war began three months ago. Russian-backed rebels also said they had taken the Lyman rail hub.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai warned that Ukrainian soldiers may have to withdraw from Sievierodonetsk to avoid being surrounded.
However, he predicted an ultimate Ukrainian victory, saying on Telegram: “The Russians will not be able to capture the Lugansk region in the next few days, as analysts predict.
“We will have enough forces and means to defend ourselves.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelesnskyy also struck a defiant tone. In his nightly video address, he said: “If the occupiers think Lyman or Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are mistaken. The Donbass will be Ukrainian.
For now, Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk told The Associated Press that “the city is being systematically destroyed – 90% of the city’s buildings are damaged.”
Mr. Striuk described conditions in Sievierodonetsk reminiscent of the Battle of Mariupol, located in Donbass’ other province, Donetsk.
Now in ruins, the port city was constantly cordoned off by Russian forces during a nearly three-month siege that ended last week when Russia claimed its capture. It is feared that more than 20,000 of its civilians are dead.
Before the war, Sievierodonetsk was home to around 100,000 people. About 12,000 to 13,000 remain in the city, Striuk said, huddled in shelters and largely cut off from the rest of Ukraine.
At least 1,500 people have died there due to the war, which is now in its 93rd day.
The figure includes those killed by shelling or in fires caused by Russian missile strikes, as well as those who died from shrapnel wounds, untreated illnesses, lack of medicine or be trapped under the rubble, said the mayor.
In the northeast quarter of the city, Russian reconnaissance and sabotage groups attempted to seize the Mir Hotel and the area around it, Striuk said.
Clues to Russia’s strategy for Donbass can be found in Mariupol, where Moscow is consolidating its control through measures such as state-controlled broadcast programs and revised school curricula, according to an analysis by the Institute. for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.
Russia’s aggressive push into the Donbass, however, could backfire by seriously depleting Russia’s arsenal. Echoing a UK MoD assessment, military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said Russia was deploying 50-year-old T-62 tanks, “meaning the world’s second-largest army is running out of equipment. modernized”.
As Ukraine’s hopes of stopping the Russian advance fade, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pleaded with Western countries for heavy weapons, saying it was the only area in which Russia had a clear advantage.
“Without artillery, without multiple rocket launcher systems, we won’t be able to repel them,” he said.
The US Department of Defense has not confirmed a CNN report that President Joe Biden’s administration is preparing to send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine, possibly as early as next week.
“We are certainly attentive and aware of Ukrainian requests, private and public, for what is called a multiple rocket launch system. And I will not preempt decisions that have not yet been made,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that the supply of rockets that could reach his country would represent “a most serious step towards an unacceptable escalation”, in an interview with RT Arabic broadcast on Friday.