Russian forces have taken control of about a third of the key eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk, but their assault was taking longer than they had hoped, according to a Moscow-backed separatist leader quoted in a TASS news agency report.
The street battles with Ukrainian forces as well as Russian shelling have left Severodonetsk – the last city still held by Kyiv in Ukraine’s strategic Luhansk province – in ruins. Russian troops have entered the city’s southeastern and northeastern fringes, but the Ukrainian defence has slowed the wider Russian campaign across the Donbas region.
“We can say already that a third of Severodonetsk is already under our control,” TASS quoted Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, as saying in a report on Tuesday morning.
Pasechnik told the Russian state news agency that fighting was raging in the city, but Russian forces were not advancing as rapidly as might have been hoped.
“But we want, above all, to maintain the city’s infrastructure,” he said.
Regional governor Serhiy Haidai told Ukrainian state television on Tuesday that Russian troops are slowly advancing towards the centre of the city, but said Ukrainian troops defending Severodonetsk were not at risk of being encircled as they could retreat to Lysychansk across the river.
Military analysts described the fight for Severodonetsk as part of a race against time for the Kremlin. The city is important to Russian efforts to quickly complete the capture of the eastern industrial region of the Donbas before more Western arms arrive to bolster Ukraine’s defence.
“The Kremlin has reckoned that it can’t afford to waste time and should use the last chance to extend the separatist-controlled territory because the arrival of Western weapons in Ukraine could make it impossible,” The Associated Press quoted Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov as saying.
Luhansk was recognised as independent by Russia when Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, although Kyiv and its Western allies consider it part of Ukraine. Russia has been pressing to seize the entire Donbas region, consisting of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions which Moscow claims on behalf of separatist proxies.
Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said the city has been “completely ruined”. Artillery fire has destroyed critical infrastructure and damaged 90 percent of the buildings, and power and communications have been largely cut to a city that was once home to 100,000 people, he said.
“The number of victims is rising every hour, but we are unable to count the dead and the wounded amid the street fighting,” Striuk told the AP in a phone interview.
He said that only about 12,000 to 13,000 residents remain, sheltering in basements and bunkers to escape the Russian bombardment. The situation recalls the siege of Mariupol, which trapped residents and led to some of the worst suffering of the war. More than 20,000 are feared dead in Mariupol.
Striuk estimated that 1,500 civilians have died in Severodonetsk since the war began from Russian attacks and from dire conditions that include a lack of medicine and medical treatment.
A 32-year-old French journalist, Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, died on Monday near Severodonetsk when he was hit by shrapnel from shelling while covering Ukrainian evacuations, according to his employer, French broadcaster BFM TV.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Leclerc-Imhoff was the 32nd media worker to die in Ukraine since Russia invaded.