Russian forces using punishing firepower pushed Ukrainian troops back from the centre of Severodonetsk yesterday with the two sides fighting for “literally every metre” as Kyiv’s foothold in the crucial strategic city crumbles.
Amid warnings that the city could fall to Moscow within days, President Zelensky begged western leaders for missile defence systems, saying his country had been struck by about 2,600 Russian cruise missiles since the start of the war.
He has called the battle for Severodonetsk decisive for the fate of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, where Russia has a “ten fold” artillery advantage, according to his military chief.
Zelensky accused Moscow of sending waves of poorly trained conscripts to their deaths in an effort to overwhelm his forces. “Russian generals see their people simply as the cannon fodder they need to gain an advantage in numbers,” he said in his nightly video address.
He predicted Russia will have lost 40,000 soldiers by the end of the month. “In no other war in many decades have they lost so much.”
But nodding to the increasingly heavy losses being taken by the Ukrainian military, their commander in chief General Valeriy Zaluzhny added: “Every metre of Ukrainian land there is covered in blood — not only ours but also the occupier’s.”
Kremlin-backed separatists said Russian forces had succeeded in destroying the last bridge into Severodonetsk, effectively cutting off Ukrainian troops and civilians from the rest of the country.
Serhiy Hayday, the province’s governor, said a third bridge was still standing though bombardment damage meant no evacuation vehicles could cross it. “If after new shelling the bridge collapses, the city will truly be cut off,” he said. “There will be no way of leaving Severodonetsk in a vehicle.”
In a haunting echo of the final siege of the Azovstal steelworks at Mariupol, Russian forces were yesterday shelling an industrial zone housing the Azot chemical plant, where about 500 civilians, including 40 children, are sheltering alongside soldiers.
Hayday accused Russian forces of firing on residential areas “for hours on end,” making a civilian evacuation impossible. “The Russians are destroying quarter after quarter,” he said.
Moscow-backed separatists called on Ukrainian soldiers to give up their arms as the defenders of Avozstal were ordered to do last month, before disappearing into Russian-controlled territory and out of contact.
“They have two options: either follow the example of their fellow soldiers and surrender, or die,” Eduard Basurin, a separatist spokesman, said. “They have no other option.”
As fighting raged throughout the weekend, Russian shelling was reported to have set off a blaze at the chemical plant which produces nitrogen fertiliser and household goods.
Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of Luhansk’s pro-Russian separatists, blamed Ukrainian fire for the blaze and claimed his forces were holding back because of the risk of an “environmental catastrophe”.
Severodonetsk and its neighbouring city of Lysychansk are the only urban centres left in the Luhansk region yet to fall to the Russians. It became the de facto regional capital in 2014 after Luhansk city was captured by Russian-backed separatists. This front has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the conflict, with Russian forces concentrated on a narrow pincer movement to cut off Ukrainian forces.
However, Britain’s defence ministry said Russia could run into trouble moving any further west, with risky river crossing operations “likely to become among the most important determining factors in the course of the war”.
Last month the Russian army failed three times in three days to cross the Siverskyi Donets River, taking heavy losses when Ukrainian forces destroyed a pontoon bridge.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to Zelensky, issued an appeal to Nato for more medium-range rocket systems, saying that without “heavy weapons parity” with Russia, Ukraine could not end the war.
Kyiv is hanging on the outcome of a Nato defence ministers meeting tomorrow for news of any fresh weapons supplies. Moscow claimed yesterday to have destroyed a large quantity of western-supplied weapons at a railway facility in the Donetsk region using precision missiles, a claim that could not be immediately authenticated.
President Niinisto of Finland, who met with the Nato chief to discuss his country’s bid for membership, said that the West could not provide longer range weapons that Moscow would see as an escalation. He warned, however, that Russia was using stronger firepower against Ukraine, including thermobaric bombs that he described as “weapons of mass destruction”.
His comments came as Amnesty International accused Russia of war crimes in Ukraine, including the use of banned cluster bombs. “The repeated bombardments of residential neighbourhoods in Kharkiv are indiscriminate attacks which killed and injured hundreds of civilians, and as such constitute war crimes,” Amnesty said.