Officials in eastern Ukraine say the Russian shelling of Sievierodonetsk was so intense that it was not possible to assess casualties and damage, as Moscow closes in on the biggest city still held by Ukraine in the Donbass.
“The situation has gotten extremely worse,” Serhiy Haidai, governor of the Lugansk region, said on Sunday. Witnesses said the town was shelled “200 times an hour” as Russian forces attempted to cut through lines of reinforcements and encircle its remaining defenders.
Ukrainian authorities have described conditions in Sievierodonetsk as reminiscent of Mariupol, the southern port city that fell on May 20 after almost three months of relentless assault.
The escalation in fighting came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited Ukrainian troops on the front lines in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, in his first official appearance outside the Kyiv region since the start of the war.
“You are risking your life for all of us and for our country,” Zelenskiy told the soldiers.
He added that the Russian bombing had destroyed “the city’s entire critical infrastructure” and more than two-thirds of its housing stock. Taking Sievierodonetsk was Russia’s “main objective” at the moment, the president said.
The Battle of Sievierodonetsk, which lies on the eastern bank of the Siverskyi Donets River, about 145 km (90 miles) south of the Russian border, is in the spotlight as Russia makes slow but solid gains in the Industrial Donbass, which includes the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
“They don’t care how many lives they will have to pay for this,” Zelenskiy said in his final national address, referring to Russian forces in the region.
Having failed to take the capital Kyiv at the start of the war, Russia is seeking to consolidate its grip on Donbass, much of which is already controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. He concentrated enormous firepower in a small area – unlike in the previous phase of the conflict, when his forces were often scattered – pounding towns and villages with artillery and airstrikes.
Regional officials reported that Russian forces were “storming” Sievierodonetsk and fighting was taking place street by street, cutting off electricity and cellphone services.
Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said residents remaining in the city, which had a population of around 100,000 before the war, risked exposure to shelling when they left their homes to access water. Striuk estimated that 1,500 civilians have already died either from Russian attacks or from a lack of medicine and incurable diseases.
Russia has also stepped up efforts to take the nearby town of Lysychansk, where Haidai said a Russian shell fell on a residential building over the weekend, killing a child.
The “liberation” of Donbass was an “unconditional priority” for Moscow, the Russian foreign minister said, adding that other Ukrainian territories should decide their future on their own.
“The liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, recognized by the Russian Federation as independent states, is an unconditional priority,” Sergei Lavrov told French television channel TF1 in an interview on Sunday.
Zelenskiy’s office posted a video on Telegram of him wearing a bulletproof vest and showing destroyed buildings in and around Kharkiv, from where Russian forces have withdrawn in recent weeks.
It was the first official appearance of the Ukrainian president outside the Kyiv region since the start of the war. “Kharkiv suffered terrible blows from the occupiers… A third of the Kharkiv region is still under occupation,” he said.
Last Thursday, Russian artillery pounded the city of Kharkiv for the first time in two weeks, as life in Ukraine’s second city began to return to normal after troops from Moscow were pushed back from its towns and outlying villages. At least nine people were killed and 17 injured in the attacks on the northern part of the city.
Zelenskiy expressed hope his allies would provide much-needed weapons and said he expected “good news” in the coming days.
A few days ago, the United States and its allies indicated that they would supply Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated weapons, including the multiple rocket launcher systems that Kyiv has called for. Ukraine said it had started receiving Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Denmark and self-propelled howitzers from the United States.
Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak repeated a call for US-made long-range multiple rocket launchers. US officials have said such systems are being actively considered, with a decision possible in the coming days.
“It’s hard to fight when you’re attacked from 70km away and you have nothing to fight back,” Podolyak posted on Twitter. “We need effective weapons.”
Meanwhile, Zelenskiy said in a television interview that he believed Russia would agree to talks if Ukraine could regain all the territory it has lost since the invasion.
Zelenskiy ruled out using force to win back all the land Ukraine has lost to Russia since 2014, including the southern Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow that year.
“I don’t believe we can restore all of our territory by military means. If we decide to go down this path, we will lose hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.
Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report