Ukrainian forces claimed on Thursday to have pushed forward in intense street fighting in the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk, but said their only hope to turn the tide was more artillery to offset Russia’s massive firepower.
In the south, Ukraine’s defence ministry said it had captured new ground in a counter-attack in Kherson province, targeting the biggest swathe of territory Russia has seized since its invasion in February.
The battle amid the ruins of Sievierodonetsk, a small industrial city, has become one of the war’s bloodiest, with Russia concentrating its invasion force there. Both sides say they have inflicted massive casualties.
Sievierodonetsk and its twin city Lysychansk on the opposite bank of the Siverskyi Donets river are the last Ukrainian-controlled parts of Luhansk province, which Moscow is determined to seize as one of its principal war objectives.
Russian forces are focusing all of their might in the area, Ukraine’s Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.
“They don’t spare their people, they’re just sending men like cannon fodder,” he said. “They are shelling our military day and night.”
Two Britons and a Moroccan who were captured while fighting for Ukraine were sentenced to death on Thursday by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), one of Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine, Russian news agencies reported.
In a rare update from Sievierodonetsk, the commander of Ukraine’s Svoboda National Guard Battalion, Petro Kusyk, said Ukrainians were drawing the Russians into street fighting to neutralise Russia’s artillery advantage.
“Yesterday was successful for us – we launched a counteroffensive and in some areas we managed to push them back one or two blocks. In others they pushed us back, but just by a building or two,” he said in a televised interview.
“Yesterday the occupiers suffered serious losses – if every day were like yesterday, this would all be over soon.”
But he said his forces were suffering from a “catastrophic” lack of counter-battery artillery to fire back at Russia’s guns, and getting such weapons would transform the battlefield.
“Even without these systems, we are holding on fine. There is an order to hold our positions and we are holding them. It is unbelievable what the surgeons are doing without the proper equipment to save soldiers’ lives.”
Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said on Thursday around 10,000 civilians were still trapped inside the city – around a tenth of its pre-war population.
To the west of Sievierodonetsk, Russia is pushing from the north and south, trying to trap Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region comprising Luhansk and neighbouring Donetsk province, blasting Ukrainian-controlled towns in their path with artillery.
In Soledar, a salt-mining town near Bakhmut close to the front line, buildings had been blasted into craters.
Remaining residents, mostly elderly, were sheltering in a crowded cellar. Antonina, 65, had ventured out to see her garden. “We are staying. We live here. We were born here,” she sobbed. “When is it all going to end?”
In the south, Moscow is trying to impose its rule on a tract of occupied territory spanning Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces, where Russian-installed proxy authorities say they are planning referendums to join Russia.
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry said on Thursday its forces had won back some territory in a counter-offensive in Kherson.
It gave no details about the location of the advance, but said the Russian forces had “suffered losses in manpower and equipment”, and planted mines and erected barricades as they were pushed back.
Ukraine reported a counter-offensive in Kherson last week, claiming to have seized a bridgehead on the south bank of the Inhulets river forming a boundary of the province, an assertion backed up this week by Britain’s ministry of defence. The situation there could not be independently confirmed.
Thousands of people have been killed and millions have fled since Moscow launched its “special military operation” to disarm and “denazify” its neighbour on Feb 24. Ukraine and its allies call the invasion an unprovoked war of aggression.
Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest grain and food oil exporters, and international attention has focused in recent weeks on the threat of international famine seen as caused by Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
“Millions of people may starve if the Russian blockade of the Black Sea continues,” Zelensky said on Thursday in televised remarks.
Moscow blames the food crisis on Western sanctions restricting its own grain exports. It says it is willing to let Ukrainian ports open for exports if Ukraine removes mines and meets other conditions. Kyiv calls such offers empty promises.
Turkey, a Nato power with good relations with both Kyiv and Moscow, has tried to mediate, hosting Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks on Tuesday.
Russia has also been trying to sell grain from areas of Ukraine it seized, activity Kyiv and the West call looting. Asked if any deal had been reached to sell grain from southern Ukraine to Turkey or a Middle Eastern country, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “So far no agreements have been reached, work is continuing.”