Russian troops bombarded a riverside city on Friday in what appeared to herald a major assault to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-held territory in a province it claims on behalf of separatists.
Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had launched massive artillery bombardment against Sievierodonetsk, one of the last Ukrainian-held bastions in Luhansk, one of two southeastern provinces Moscow and its proxies proclaim as independent states.
The city, and its twin Lyshchansk on the opposite bank of the Siverskiy Donets river, form the eastern part of a Ukrainian-held pocket that Russia has been trying to overrun since mid-April after failing to capture the capital Kyiv.
Ukraine’s general staff said Moscow had launched an offensive on Sievierodonetsk but had taken losses and was forced to retreat, part of what it described as major Russian offensive operations along a stretch of the frontline.
Despite losing ground elsewhere in recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced on the Luhansk front, in what some military analysts view as a major push to achieve scaled-down war aims of capturing all territory claimed by pro-Russian rebels.
“The Russian army has started very intensive destruction of the town of Sievierodonetsk, the intensity of shelling doubled, they are shelling residential quarters, destroying house by house,” Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said via his Telegram channel.
“We do not know how many people died, because it is simply impossible to go through and look at every apartment,” he said.
In Moscow, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said the “liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic” would be completed soon.
In an overnight address, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy described the conditions in the Donbas, which includes Luhansk and neighbouring Donetsk province, as "hell" and said the region had been "completely destroyed" by Russia's invasion.
Capturing Luhansk and Donetsk would allow Moscow to claim victory after it announced last month that this was now its objective. It achieved a major step towards that goal this week, when Ukraine ordered its garrison in the main Donbas port, Mariupol, to stand down after a near three-month siege.
Russia’s Shoigu said around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in the past four days.
Kyiv has not confirmed how many fighters have surrendered, but Britain gave the first official Western confirmation that a large force had indeed laid down arms, saying around 1,700 had surrendered. An unknown number of others were still believed to be inside, it said.
In a video, the commander of the Azov Batalion, a Ukrainian unit that had defended the plant, confirmed the order to stop fighting was being carried out, and said all civilians and wounded fighters were now out.
Denys Prokopenko, the commander, gave no further details of the fate of other fighters, but said a process was under way to remove the dead from the warren of underground tunnels and bunkers.
“I hope that in the near future, relatives and Ukraine will be able to bury their soldiers with honour,” Mr Prokopenko said.
The Red Cross says it has registered hundreds of prisoners of war who surrendered at the plant, but has given no firm numbers or further details.
Kyiv says it wants to arrange a prisoner swap for Azovstal defenders it describes as national heroes. Moscow says they will be treated humanely, but Russian politicians have been quoted as saying some must be tried for crimes or even executed.
The past week has seen Sweden and Finland apply to join NATO, the biggest shakeup in European security for decades, although Turkey has so far said it will block the move, accusing the Nordic countries of harbouring Kurdish militants.
After weeks of threatening to retaliate, Russian president Vladimir Putin appears to have climbed down, saying this week that NATO membership for Finland and Sweden did not represent a threat as such, unless the alliance sends new weapons or troops. Nevertheless, Mr Shoigu said on Friday Moscow planned to beef up its forces nearby in response to what he called new threats.
Russian forces in Ukraine have been driven in recent weeks out of the area around Ukraine's second largest city Kharkiv, their fastest retreat since being forced out of the north and the area around Kyiv at the end of March.
But they still control a large swathe of the south and east, and the end of fighting in Mariupol means that territory is now largely unbroken. Still, military analysts say Russia has been using up its offensive firepower and may be running out of time to achieve its aim of capturing the whole Donbas.
In a sign of Russia’s aim to boost its war effort, the parliament in Moscow said it would consider a bill to allow Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 to sign up for the military. Mr Putin has stopped short of declaring his “special military operation” to be a war, which would make it easier to mobilise reservists and conscripts.
Western powers, who have strongly condemned Russia’s actions and sought to isolate Moscow with an array of sanctions, were stepping up support for Ukraine. The Group of Seven on Thursday agreed to provide Ukraine with $18.4 billion to make up revenues as the war wrecks its economy.
The US Senate approved nearly $40 billion in new aid, by far the largest US aid package to date. The sum amounts to more than a quarter of Ukraine’s pre-war annual GDP.
The White House is also working to get advanced anti-ship missiles to Ukraine to help defeat Russia's naval blockade, which has halted exports from one of the world's main grain suppliers, causing what the United Nations says could be a global food crisis.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken accused Russia of using food as a weapon, holding supplies "hostage" for millions around the world. – Reuters