Ukrainian defenders fought desperately to resist a major Russian offensive in the Donetsk region, with the enemy launching heavy artillery fire to clear the way for advancing ground forces, a senior Ukrainian official said on Wednesday.
After Russian forces took control of Lysychansk, the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in Lugansk, on Sunday, the Ukrainian military prepared for an assault on Donetsk, with the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in their sights Russian.
Donetsk and Luhansk comprise Donbass, the industrialized eastern part of Ukraine that has seen Europe’s greatest battle in generations.
There was heavy fighting on the outskirts of the Luhansk region, its governor Serhiy Gaidai told Ukrainian television, saying Russian regular army and reserve forces had been sent there with the apparent aim of cross the Siverskiy Donets river.
“We are holding the enemy on the border of the Luhansk region and the Donetsk region,” Gaidai wrote on Telegram on Wednesday.
The occupants suffer significant losses.
“The occupiers are suffering heavy losses, as they themselves admit,” Gaidai said, citing testimonies from Russian prisoners of war and locals who had spoken to Russian soldiers in the fallen cities of Sievieroronetsk and Lysychansk.
Reuters could not independently verify his comments.
Mr Gaidai said earlier that Russian forces were engaged in widespread shelling as they launched their assault on Donetsk.
Russia says it wants to wrest control of all of Donbass from Ukraine on behalf of Moscow-backed separatists in two self-proclaimed people’s republics.
On Tuesday, Russian forces struck a market and residential area in Sloviansk, killing at least two people and injuring seven others, local officials said.
A Reuters reporter at the scene saw yellow smoke billowing from a car supply store and flames engulfing rows of market stalls as firefighters tried to put out the blaze.
Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said Sloviansk and nearby Kramatorsk came under heavy shelling overnight. “There is no safe place without shelling in the Donetsk region.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, calling it a “special military operation” to demilitarize the country, root out nationalists and protect Russian speakers.
Kyiv and the West say Russia is carrying out an unprovoked imperial-style land grab in its former Soviet republic and accuses the invaders of war crimes, which Moscow has denied.
A city in ruins
Lysychansk, once a city of 100,000 people, lies in ruins. Buildings are scorched and riddled with shells, cars overturned and streets strewn with rubble, a testament to the ferocity of the battle she endured.
Tatiana Glushenko, a 45-year-old resident of Lysychansk, told Reuters there were still people sheltering in basements and bomb shelters, including children and the elderly.
Ms Glushenko said she didn’t think she would be safe in other parts of Ukraine, so she stayed in Lysychansk with her family.
“All of Ukraine is being bombed: western Ukraine, central Ukraine, Dnipro, Kyiv, everywhere. So we decided not to risk our lives and to stay here, at home at least,” she added.
Ms Glushenko now hopes peace will return to her crumbling town, but for elderly residents Sergei and Evgenia, the prospect of rebuilding from the ruins is daunting.
“We have to get out of here somehow,” Sergei said, sitting in a dark shelter with a single flashlight.
“The roof is broken. You have to fix it, but how and how do you pay for it?… Winter is coming soon too,” Evgenia said.
Luhansk Governor Gaidai said Russian forces were looting Lysychansk and its twin city Sievierodonetsk.
“They hunt down pro-Ukrainian residents. They make deals with collaborators, they identify apartments where military people lived, burglary and take clothes,” he said.
It’s already seen – 1939 with Nazi Germany.
“Everything is being destroyed. Entire book collections in Ukrainian. It’s deja vu – 1939 with Nazi Germany.”
Reuters could not immediately verify this report.
Russia says it does not target civilians.
“Long War” to come
Moscow intensified its war rhetoric with Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin claiming that Ukraine had become a “terrorist state”.
Remarks by speaker of parliament’s lower house suggest Russia could expand its declared war aims beyond Donbas, after previously abandoning offensives on the capital Kyiv and second-largest city Kharkiv in the face of fierce resistance .
In another sign that Russia is preparing for a long war, the Duma has passed two bills in its first reading that would allow the government to compel companies to supply the army and have personnel work overtime to support the invasion.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a phone call that he believed the Ukrainian military could retake territory recently captured by Russia.
Mr Johnson briefed Mr Zelenskiy on the latest deliveries of British military equipment, including 10 self-propelled artillery systems and vagrancy ammunition, which would arrive in the coming days and weeks, a spokesman said.
The Russian invasion killed thousands, displaced millions and destroyed cities, especially in the Russian-speaking regions of eastern and southeastern Ukraine. It has also pushed up global energy and food prices and raised fears of famine in poorer countries, with Ukraine and Russia both major grain producers.
Ukraine has asked Turkey to help probe three Russian-flagged vessels as part of Kyiv’s efforts to investigate what it says is the theft of grain from Russian-occupied territory, official documents show. Russia denies stealing Ukrainian grain.
The Taoiseach witnessed the devastation inflicted by invading Russian forces in Ukraine as he toured the areas of Kyiv which bore the brunt of the offensive against the city.
Micheál Martin began a trip to the Ukrainian capital today, visiting the conflict-scarred suburbs of Borodyanka, Bucha and Irpin.
The tour included a somber visit to the site of a mass grave in the grounds of a church in Bucha.
Mr Martin is taking advantage of his visit to Kyiv to reiterate Irish solidarity with the Ukrainian authorities in the face of the Russian invasion.