Reuters/ Kyiv/Svitlodarsk, Ukraine
Advancing Russian forces came closer to surrounding Ukrainian troops in the east, briefly seizing positions on the last highway out of a crucial pair of Ukrainian-held cities before being beaten back, a Ukrainian official said yesterday.
Three months into its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has abandoned its assault on the capital Kyiv and is trying to consolidate control of the industrial eastern Donbas region, where it has backed a separatist revolt since 2014.
It has poured thousands of troops into its assault, attacking from three sides in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.
The fall of the two cities, which straddle the Siverskiy Donets river, would bring nearly the whole of Luhansk province under Russian control, a key Kremlin war aim.
“Russia has the advantage, but we are doing everything we can” in the battle in the area, said general Oleksiy Gromov, deputy chief of the main operations department of Ukraine’s general staff.
Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk province, said around 50 Russian soldiers had reached the highway and “managed to gain a foothold for some time. They even set up some kind of checkpoint there”.
“The checkpoint was broken, they were thrown back. That is to say, the Russian army does not control the route now, but they are shelling it,” he said in an interview posted on social media.
He hinted at further Ukrainian withdrawals, saying it was possible troops would leave “one settlement, maybe two. We need to win the war, not the battle”.
“It is clear that our boys are slowly retreating to more fortified positions — we need to hold back this horde,” he said.
Western military analysts see the battle for the two cities as a potential turning point in the war, now that Russia has defined its principal objective as capturing the east. Reuters journalists operating in Russian-held territory further south saw proof of Moscow’s advance in the town of Svitlodarsk, where Ukrainian forces withdrew earlier this week.
The town is now under firm control of pro-Russian fighters, who have occupied the local government building and hung a red flag bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle at the door.
Drone footage of the nearby abandoned battlefield showed scores of craters pockmarking a green field surrounded by wrecked buildings.
Pro-Russian fighters were milling about in trenches.
Russia’s recent gains in the Donbas follow the surrender of Ukraine’s garrison in Mariupol last week, and suggest a shift in momentum on the battlefield after weeks in which Ukrainian forces had advanced near Kharkiv in the northeast.
“Recent Russian gains offer a sobering check on expectations for the near term,” tweeted defence analyst Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the US-based CNA think-tank.
Russian troops have broken through Ukrainian lines at Popasna, south of Sievierodonetsk, and are threatening to encircle Ukrainian forces, he wrote.
“The extent to which this breakthrough at Popasna threatens Ukraine’s overall position depends on whether or not Russian forces gain momentum.”
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