Russian forces intensified their assault on the Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk on Sunday after claiming to have captured the nearby rail hub of Lyman, as Kyiv issued new calls for longer-range weapons from the West.
Slow, solid Russian gains in recent days in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas, comprising the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, point to a subtle momentum shift in the war, now in its fourth month.
Invading forces appear close to seizing all of the Luhansk region, one of the more modest war goals the Kremlin set after abandoning its assault on the capital, Kyiv, in the face of Ukrainian resistance.
Russia’s defence ministry said its troops and allied separatist forces were in full control of Lyman, the site of a railway junction west of the Siverskyi Donets River in the Donetsk.
However, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Malyar, said the battle for Lyman continued, the ZN.ua website reported.
Sievierodonetsk, some 60 km (40 miles) northeast of Lyman on the eastern side of the river and the largest Donbas city still held by Ukraine, was under heavy assault from the Russians.
“The situation has extremely escalated,” said Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of Luhansk.
The shelling was so intense it was not possible to assess the latest casualties and damage, though two people were killed on Saturday and 13 more buildings in the city were destroyed, he said.
Gaidai said on Friday may have to retreat from the city to avoid capture but it was not clear whether they had begun to pull out.
Russian artillery was also pounding the Lysychansk-Bakhmut road, which Russia must take to close a pincer movement and encircle Ukrainian forces, and police said there was “significant destruction” in Lysychansk.
Ukrainian presidential adviser and peace negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak repeated a call for US-made long-range multiple-rocket launchers. US officials have told Reuters such systems are actively being considered, with a decision possible in coming days.
“It is hard to fight when you are attacked from 70 km away and have nothing to fight back with … we need effective weapons,” Podolyak posted on Twitter.
President Volodymyr Zelensky voiced hopes in a late-night video address that Ukraine’s allies would provide needed weapons, adding that he expected “good news” this week.
Ukrainian forces in the Donbas said in a brief Facebook post they had been on the defensive all day, fending off seven Russian attacks and destroying a tank.
Reuters could not independently verify the claims.
Zelensky said the military situation in the Donbas was very complicated, adding that defences were holding up in a number of places, including Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.
“It’s indescribably difficult there. And I am grateful to all those who withstood this onslaught,” he said.
The British defence ministry said in its daily intelligence report that if Russia succeeded in taking over those areas, the Kremlin would likely view it as a “substantive political achievement”, which it could use to justify its invasion to the Russian people.
In a sign of frustration over Western differences on the war, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna said NATO had shown itself incapable of mounting a united response.