Russian troops in eastern Ukraine were laying siege last night to Severodonetsk, the latest city to become a flashpoint in three months of war.
The advancing forces managed to destroy a bridge leading into the city, the largest in Ukrainian hands in the oblast, or district, of Luhansk, one of two “breakaway republics” in the east of the country that have been fought over since 2014. The Russians threaten to encircle Ukrainian forces defending Severodonetsk.
Their advance had been held up when a column of tanks was blown up and sunk two weeks ago as it crossed a nearby pontoon bridge. But the Russians have managed to resume their progress. As plumes of thick smoke filled the sky over the city, visible from 35 miles to southwest at a checkpoint on a crossroads on the way to the city of Bakhmut, soldiers confirmed that the Ukrainians were retreating.
“Troops are leaving their positions as the Russians advance,” a soldier in a mobile battery of self-propelled guns told The Times, speaking on condition of anonymity. The soldier said he had only arrived in Severodonetsk a week earlier before having to withdraw.
Heavier Ukrainian equipment was being brought in. Eight tanks on transporters were being carried east, though their final destination was unclear.
The Ministry of Defence in London said that the Russians had deployed a company of BMP-T Terminator tank support units to Severodonetsk, a sign of its determination to take the city. The MoD described Severodonetsk as one of Russia’s “immediate tactical priorities”. It said Russia developed the Terminator after identifying a need to provide protection to battle tanks during the Afghan and Chechen wars.
“However, with a maximum of ten Terminators deployed they are unlikely to have a significant impact on the campaign,” the ministry added.
The Ukrainians are taking heavy casualties. “The Russians will take this area but we are doing everything we can to stop it,” said Georgiy, 35, a member of the special operations forces. He had come from the village of Komyshuvakha, about halfway along the road between Bakhmut and Severodonetsk. “We’ve had lots of losses here. You can be talking to a colleague one moment and in the next he’s gone. Yesterday two new guys aged around 19 joined us. They were dead by the evening. We’ve lost five vehicles on the highway to Severodonetsk and on positions. We’re terrified just as anyone would be but if fear stopped us from fighting what would we do?”
The road is under constant heavy shellfire from the Russians, who were also able to destroy the main bridge behind the Ukrainian lines connecting Severodonetsk and the city of Lysychansk.
In a video address to the nation President Zelensky described the situation in Donbas as “really hard” but “the fact that we are able to say this on the 87th day of a full-scale war against Russia is good news.”
He added: “Every day that our defenders take away from these offensive plans of Russia, disrupting them, is a concrete contribution to the approach of the main day. The desired day that we are all looking forward to and fighting for: Victory Day.”
Fighting was also continuing northeast of Kharkiv, where the Russians have dug in around major supply lines despite Ukrainian hopes that after liberating villages in the area they would be able to push the invaders back to the nearby border.
The Ukrainian military claimed that the Russians had positioned short-range Iskander cruise missiles in Belgorod, on the Russian side of the border, in a new threat to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city.
In a general staff report, Russia said that it was preparing to resume its offensive toward Slovyansk, a city in the Donetsk district that is critical to Russia’s objective of capturing all of eastern Ukraine.
Russian shelling on Saturday killed seven civilians and injured ten more elsewhere in Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, the regional governor said.
A monastery in the village of Bohorodichne was evacuated after being hit by a Russian airstrike, the regional police said. About 100 monks, nuns and children had been seeking shelter in a basement and no one was hurt, the force said in a Facebook post.
Ukraine extended martial law for three months until August 22. Parliament in Kyiv voted by an absolute majority for the third extension of the decree since the Russian invasion.