Russian and Ukrainian troops engaged in close-quarter combat in an eastern Ukraine city Sunday as Moscow´s soldiers, supported by intense shelling, attempted to gain strategic footholds for conquering the region in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance.
Ukrainian regional officials reported that Russian forces were “storming” Sievierodonetsk after trying unsuccessfully to encircle the city. The fighting knocked out power and cellphone service, and a humanitarian relief center could not operate because of the danger, the mayor said.
Sievierodonetsk, located about 143 kilometers (89 miles) south of the Russian border, emerged in recent days as the epicenter of Moscow’s quest to capture all of Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region. Russia also stepped up its efforts to take nearby Lysychansk, where civilians rushed to escape persistent shelling.
The two cities are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province, which makes up the Donbas together with neighboring Donetsk. Russia is focused, after failing to seize Ukraine´s capital, on occupying parts of Donbas not already controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
Russian forces made small advances in recent days as bombardments chewed away at Ukrainian positions and kept civilians trapped in basements or desperately trying to get out safely. Attacks to destroy military targets throughout the country also caused casualties in civilian areas
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the situation in the east as “indescribably difficult.” The “Russian army is trying to squeeze at least some results” by concentrating its attacks there, he said in a Saturday night video address.
Civilians who reached the eastern city of Pokrovsk, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Lysychansk, said they held out as long as they could before fleeing the Russian advance.
Yana Skakova choked back tears as she described leaving with her 18-month and 4-year-old sons while her husband stayed behind to take care of their house and animals. The family was among 18 people who lived in a basement for the past 2 1/2 months until police told them Friday it was time to evacuate.
“None of us wanted to leave our native city,” she said. “But for the sake of these small children, we decided to leave.”
Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said there was fighting at the city´s bus station on Saturday. Residents remaining in the city, which had a prewar population of around 100,000, risked exposure to shelling to get water from a half-dozen wells, and there was no electricity or cellphone service, Striuk said.
Striuk has estimated that 1,500 civilians have died in Russian attacks since the beginning of the war, as well as from a lack of medicine and diseases that couldn´t be treated.
The Institute for the Study of War. a think tank based in Washington, questioned the Kremlin´s strategy of assembling a huge military effort to take Sieverodonetsk, saying it was proving costly for Russia and would bring few returns.
“When the Battle of Sieverodonetsk ends, regardless of which side holds the city, the Russian offensive at the operational and strategic levels will likely have culminated, giving Ukraine the chance to restart its operational-level counteroffensives to push Russian forces back,” the institute said in an assessment published late Saturday.