Officials in eastern Ukraine say Russian shelling of Sievierodonetsk has been so intense that it has not been possible to assess casualties and damage, as Moscow closes in on the largest city still held by Ukraine in the Donbas.
“The situation has extremely escalated,” Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk region, said on Sunday. Witnesses said the city was being bombed “200 times an hour” as Russian forces try to cut off reinforcement lines and surround its remaining defenders.
Ukrainian authorities have described conditions in Sievierodonetsk as reminiscent of Mariupol, the southern port city that fell on 20 May after almost three months of relentless assault.
The intensified fighting came as Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, visited Ukrainian troops on the front lines in the north-eastern Kharkiv region, in his first official appearance outside the Kyiv area since the start of the war.
“You risk your lives for us all and for our country,” Zelenskiy told soldiers there.
He added that Russian shelling has destroyed “the entire critical infrastructure of the city” and more than two-thirds of its housing stock. Taking Sievierodonetsk was Russia’s “principal aim” right now, the president said.
The battle for Sievierodonetsk, which lies on the eastern bank of the Siverskyi Donets River, about 145km (90 miles) south of the Russian border, is in the spotlight as Russia grinds out slow but solid gains in the industrial Donbas, which comprises the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
“They don’t care how many lives they will have to pay for this,” Zelenskiy said in his latest national address, referring to Russian forces in the region.
Having failed to take the capital Kyiv in the early phase of the war, Russia is seeking to consolidate its grip on the Donbas, large parts of which are already controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. It has concentrated huge firepower on a small area – in contrast to the earlier phase of the conflict, when its forces were often spread thinly – bludgeoning towns and cities with artillery and air strikes.
Regional officials reported that Russian forces were “storming” Sievierodonetsk and that fighting was taking place street by street, knocking out power and mobile phone services.
Sievierodonetsk’s mayor, Oleksandr Striuk, said those residents remaining in the city, which had a prewar population of about 100,000, risked exposure to shelling when they left their homes to access water. Striuk has estimated that 1,500 civilians have already died either from Russian attacks or from a lack of medicine and diseases that couldn’t be treated.
Russia has also stepped up its efforts to take the neighboring city of Lysychansk, where, according to Haidai, a Russian shell fell on a residential building over the weekend, killing a child.
The “liberation” of the Donbas was an “unconditional priority” for Moscow, Russia’s foreign minister said, adding that other Ukrainian territories should decide their future on their own.
“The liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, recognized by the Russian Federation as independent states, is an unconditional priority,” Sergei Lavrov told French TV channel TF1 in an interview on Sunday.
Zelenskiy’s office posted a video on Telegram of him wearing a bulletproof vest and being shown destroyed buildings in Kharkiv and its surroundings, from where Russian forces have retreated in recent weeks.
It was the Ukrainian president’s first official appearance outside the Kyiv area since the start of the war. “Kharkiv suffered terrible blows from the occupiers… One third of the Kharkiv region is still under occupation,” he said.
Last Thursday, Russian artillery pounded the city of Kharkiv for the first time in two weeks, just as life in Ukraine’s second city was starting to return to normal after Moscow’s troops were pushed back from its outlying towns and villages. At least nine people have been killed and 17 injured in the attacks on the northern part of the city.
Zelenskiy voiced hopes that his allies would provide much needed weapons and said he expected “good news” in the coming days.
A few days ago, the US and its allies indicated that they would provide Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated weapons, including the multiple-launch rocket systems for which Kyiv has been appealing. Ukraine said it has started receiving Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Denmark and US self-propelled howitzers.
Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak repeated a call for US-made long-range multiple-rocket launchers. US officials said such systems are actively being considered, with a decision possible in the coming days.
“It is hard to fight when you are attacked from 70km away and have nothing to fight back with,” Podolyak posted on Twitter. “We need effective weapons.”
In the meantime, Zelenskiy said in a television interview that he believed Russia would agree to talks if Ukraine could recapture all the territory it has lost since the invasion.
Zelenskiy ruled out the idea of using force to win back all the land Ukraine has lost to Russia since 2014, which includes the southern peninsula of Crimea, annexed by Moscow that year.
“I do not believe that we can restore all of our territory by military means. If we decide to go that way, we will lose hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.
Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report