Ukrainian troops resist as Russia attacks Sievierodonetsk wasteland

  • Russian forces slowly advance on downtown Sievierodonetsk
  • Thousands of civilians trapped in Sievierodonetsk
  • EU breaks deadlock over Russian oil ban

KYIV, May 31 (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces held out in Sievierodonetsk on Tuesday, withstanding Russia’s all-out assault to seize a bombed-out wasteland that Moscow has made the main target of its invasion in recent days.

Both sides said Russian forces now control between a third and a half of the city. Russia’s separatist proxies acknowledged that its capture was taking longer than expected, despite one of the biggest ground assaults of the war.

Western military analysts say Moscow has drained manpower and firepower from the rest of the front to focus on Sievierodonetsk, hoping a massive offensive on the small industrial town will achieve one of its stated goals, to secure the surrounding Luhansk province for separatist proxies.

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“We can already say that a third of Sievierodonetsk is already under our control,” Russian news agency TASS said, quoting Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the pro-Moscow Lugansk People’s Republic.

Fighting raged in the city, but Russian forces were not advancing as quickly as might have been hoped, he said, claiming that pro-Moscow forces wanted to “maintain the city’s infrastructure ” and moved slowly due to the caution around the chemical plants.

The Ukrainian head of the city administration, Oleksandr Stryuk, said the Russians now controlled half of the city.

“Unfortunately (…) the city was cut in half. But at the same time, the city is still defending itself. It is still Ukrainian,” he said, advising those still stuck inside to stay in the cellars.

Ukraine claims that Russia has destroyed all of the city’s essential infrastructure with relentless shelling, followed by wave after wave of massive ground assaults causing mass casualties.

Thousands of residents remain trapped. Russian forces are advancing towards the city center, but slowly, regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said.

Gaidai said there appeared to be no risk of Ukrainian forces being surrounded, although they might eventually be forced to retreat across the Siverskiy Donets River to Lysychansk, the twin town on the opposite shore.

Stryuk, head of the city administration, said it was no longer possible to evacuate civilians. Authorities called off efforts to evacuate residents after shrapnel killed a French journalist on Monday.

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council aid agency, which had long operated out of Sievierodonetsk, said he was “horrified” by its destruction.

“We fear that up to 12,000 civilians remain caught in the crossfire in the city, without sufficient access to water, food, medicine or electricity. The near-constant shelling is forcing civilians to take refuge in bomb shelters and basements, with only a few opportunities for those trying to escape.”

Elsewhere on the battlefield, there were few reports of major changes. To the east, Ukraine says Moscow is trying to attack other areas along the main front, regrouping to move towards the town of Solvyansk. To the south, Ukraine has claimed in recent days to have pushed Russian forces back to a bank of the Inhulets River, a border of the Russian province of Kherson.

OIL BAN

After failing to capture Kyiv, being driven out of northern Ukraine, and making only limited progress elsewhere in the east, Moscow concentrated its power on Sievierodonetsk, which had a pre-war population of around 110,000.

Victory there and across the river in Lysychansk would bring full control of Luhansk, one of two eastern provinces of Moscow claimed on behalf of separatist proxies.

But the huge battle came at a heavy cost, which some Western military experts say could hurt Russia’s ability to repel counterattacks.

“Putin is now throwing men and ammunition” at Sievierodonetsk, “as if doing so would win the war in the Kremlin. He is wrong,” the Institute for the Study of War think tank based in Paris wrote this week. Washington.

“When the Battle of Severodonetsk ends, regardless of which side holds the city, the Russian offensive at the operational and strategic levels will probably have peaked, giving Ukraine the opportunity to relaunch its counter-offensives at the operational level to repel Russian forces.”

Overnight, the EU agreed to its toughest sanctions on Russia since the start of the war, targeting for the first time Russian sales of energy, Moscow’s main source of income.

The EU will now ban the import of Russian oil by sea. Officials said it would halt two-thirds of Russia’s oil exports to Europe initially, and 90% by the end of this year, with Germany and Poland also cutting pipeline imports . Read more

But Hungary, which relies on Russian oil through a massive Soviet-era pipeline, was granted an exemption. Read more

Ukraine says sanctions are taking too long and are still too full of holes to stop Russia: ‘If you ask me, I would say way too slow, way too late and definitely not enough,’ says Ihor Zhovkva, chief Deputy to President Volodymyr. Zelensky’s office.

Nevertheless, the Foreign Ministry hailed the new EU package and said the oil restrictions would cost Moscow tens of billions of dollars.

Moscow, meanwhile, has cut off gas supplies to several EU countries in a dispute over how to receive payments, although the measures taken so far, during the warmer months when demand is more weak, have not yet had the most serious impact. On Tuesday, Russia shut down the main Dutch gas buyer, GasTerra, which said it would source its supplies elsewhere. Read more

Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February, saying Moscow was aiming to disarm and “denazify” its neighbor. Ukraine and its Western allies call it a baseless pretext for a war to take over territory.

Ukraine accuses Moscow of large-scale war crimes, razing cities with artillery and killing and raping civilians in areas it occupied. Russia denies targeting civilians and says the charges were rigged.

In the second war crimes trial to be held in Ukraine, two Russian soldiers were sentenced on Tuesday to 11 and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to bombing civilian targets. Ukraine’s chief prosecutor said Kyiv had identified more than 600 Russian war crimes suspects and started prosecuting about 80 of them.

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Reports from Reuters offices; Written by Simon Cameron-Moore and Peter Graff; Editing by Stephen Coates and Alison Williams

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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