KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (AP) — The Russian-battered eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk looked set to become another Mariupol on Monday, as the mayor told The Associated Press that Russian troops had entered, electricity and communications had been cut off, and “the city was completely destroyed.
Moscow is seeking to conquer all of Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region, and Sievierodonetsk is the key. Fierce street fighting is underway in the city as Ukrainian defenders try to push back the Russians, Mayor Oleksandr Striuk told the AP in a phone interview. Russian troops advanced a few blocks toward the city center, he said.
“The number of casualties is increasing hour by hour, but we are unable to count the dead and injured amid the street fighting,” the mayor added. He said 12,000 to 13,000 civilians left in the city, which once held more than 100,000, are sheltering in basements and bunkers to escape Russian shelling.
Russian forces stormed Sievierodonetsk after unsuccessfully trying to encircle it, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the situation as “indescribably difficult”. A Russian artillery barrage destroyed critical infrastructure and damaged 90% of buildings. The mayor estimated that 1,500 civilians in the city have died since the start of the war, Russian attacks as well as lack of medicine or treatment.
Sievierodonetsk, 143 kilometers (89 miles) south of the Russian border, has emerged in recent days as the epicenter of the Donbass fighting. Mariupol is the Sea of Azov city that spent nearly three months under Russian siege before the last Ukrainian fighters surrendered.
The Ukrainian military said Russian forces were reinforcing their positions in the northeastern and southeastern outskirts of Sievierodonetsk and bringing in additional equipment and ammunition to continue their offensive.
Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai said the Russians were also pushing towards nearby Lysychansk. He said two civilians were killed and five others injured in the last Russian bombardment of the war..
Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk cross the strategically important Siverskiy Donetsk River. These are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk, which together make up the Donbass with the adjacent Donetsk region.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, questioned the Kremlin’s strategy of mounting a huge military effort to take Sieverodonetsk, saying it was proving costly for Russia and n would bring few returns.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told French television TF1 on Sunday that Moscow’s “unconditional priority is the liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”, adding that Russia considers them “independent states”. He also suggested that other regions of Ukraine should be able to establish close ties with Russia.
The Ukrainian military reported heavy fighting around Donetsk, the regional capital, as well as in Lyman to the north, a small town that serves as a key rail hub in the region. “The enemy is strengthening its units,” the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff said. “He’s trying to establish himself in the area.”
Authorities in a breakaway region backed by Russia said at least five civilians were killed in the latest Ukrainian shelling of the city of Donetsk, including a 13-year-old boy.
Zelenskyy will address the gathered European Union leaders on Monday in yet another show of solidarity with Ukraine amid divisions over whether to target Russian oil in a new round of sanctions. He has repeatedly demanded that the EU target Russia’s lucrative energy sector and deprive Moscow of billions of dollars every day in supply payments.
Zelenskyy on Sunday visited soldiers in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, where Ukrainian fighters pushed back Russian forces from nearby positions several weeks ago. Russia continued to shell the city from the northeast, and explosions could be heard shortly after Zelenskyy’s visit. Bombings and airstrikes have destroyed more than 2,000 buildings since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, according to regional governor Oleh Syniehubov.
In the wider Kharkiv region, Russian troops still held about a third of the territory, Zelenskyy said.
Russian pressure also continued in the south on Monday. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said an artillery strike at the Mykolaiv southern port shipyard destroyed Ukrainian armored vehicles stationed in its territory.
In the Kherson region, the deputy head of the regional administration installed in Russia, Kirill Stremousov, told the Russian state news agency Tass that grain from last year’s harvest was being delivered to Russian buyers. , adding that “obviously there is a lot of grain here.” Ukraine accused Russia of looting grain from territories held by its forces, and the United States alleged that Moscow was jeopardizing the supply world food by preventing Ukraine from exporting its harvest.
In Mariupol on Sunday, an aide to its Ukrainian mayor claimed that after Russian forces took full control of the city, they piled up the bodies of dead people in a supermarket. Petro Andryushchenko, posted a photo on the Telegram messaging app showing bodies stacked next to closed supermarket counters. It was not immediately possible to verify his assertion.
Yuras Karmanau reported from Lviv. AP reporters from around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine