Russian forces have cut off all routes for evacuating citizens from the eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk by destroying the last bridge linking it to a Ukrainian-held city on the other side of the river, a Ukrainian official said.
Regional Governor Serhiy Haidai said on social media on Monday that some 70 percent of Severodonetsk was under enemy control, as the Russian offensive in the eastern Donbas region moved closer to securing a breakthrough victory.
Haidai described the situation of Ukrainian soldiers holding out in the city as “difficult, but under control”. He said the destruction of the last bridge across the river to the twin city of Lysychansk meant any civilians still in Severodonetsk were trapped, and it was impossible to deliver humanitarian supplies.
Russia’s RIA news agency quoted a pro-Moscow separatist spokesperson Eduard Basurin as saying Ukrainian troops were effectively cut off in Severodonetsk and should surrender or die.
Russian artillery also pounded the Azot chemical plant, where, according to Haidai, hundreds of civilians were sheltering.
Damien Magrou, spokesperson for the International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine that has had forces in Severodonetsk, said the situation risked becoming like Mariupol, “with a large pocket of Ukrainian defenders cut off from the rest of the Ukrainian troops”.
During the fall of Mariupol last month, hundreds of civilians and badly wounded Ukrainian soldiers were trapped for weeks in the Azovstal steelworks.
Charles Stratford, reporting from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, said the situation in Severodonetsk was “very worrying”, with some 10,000 civilians reported to remain, and 500 civilians – including about 40 children – sheltering in the Azot plant.
“And of course it has huge implications militarily for the Ukrainian army as well. We understand that there could be thousands of Ukrainian soldiers inside Severodonetsk,” he said.
“If that third and final bridge has been completely destroyed, it has implications for them getting military supplies into those Ukrainian forces and an escape route out.”
Ukraine has issued increasingly urgent calls for more Western heavy weapons to help defend Severodonetsk, which Kyiv says could hold the key to the battle for the eastern Donbas region and the course of the war, now in its fourth month.
Late on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the battle for the eastern Donbas would go down as one of the most brutal in European history. The region, comprising the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, is claimed by Russian separatists.
“For us, the price of this battle is very high. It is just scary,” he said.
“We draw the attention of our partners daily to the fact that only a sufficient number of modern artillery for Ukraine will ensure our advantage,” he added.
“We just need enough weapons to ensure all of this. Our partners have them,” Zelenskyy said.
Ukraine needs 1,000 howitzers, 500 tanks and 1,000 drones, among other heavy weapons, presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Monday.
Russia has denied targeting civilians in what it calls a “special operation” to restore Russian security and “denazify” its neighbour.
Ukraine and its Western allies call this a baseless pretext for an invasion which has killed thousands of civilians and raised fears of wider conflict in Europe.
After failing to take Kyiv following the February 24 invasion, Moscow focused on expanding control in the Donbas, where pro-Russian separatists have held territory since 2014. Russia has also tried to capture more of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
Russia’s main goal is to protect Donetsk and Luhansk, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday, after the leader of one of the separatist regions asked for additional forces from Moscow.
Moscow issued the latest of several recent reports saying it had destroyed US and European arms and equipment.
Russia’s defence ministry said high-precision air-based missiles had struck near the railway station in Udachne northwest of Donetsk, hitting equipment that had been delivered to Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine’s interior ministry on Telegram said Udachne had been hit by a Russian strike overnight on Sunday into Monday, without mentioning whether weapons had been targeted.
Moscow has criticised the United States and other nations for sending Ukraine weapons and has threatened to strike new targets if the West supplied long-range missiles.