Russian shelling has destroyed all of the critical infrastructure in the Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk, president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Sunday, describing the taking of the city as Russia’s “principal aim” right now.
“As a result of Russian strikes on Sievierodonetsk, all the city’s critical infrastructure is destroyed... More than two-thirds of the city’s housing stock is destroyed,” Zelenskiy said in a televised speech.
“Taking Sievierodonetsk is the principal aim of the occupying contingents,” he added.
Ukraine has said its forces still control Severodonetsk amid street fighting with Russian troops, during what Mr Zelenskiy called an “indescribably difficult” defence of government-held areas of the Donbas region.
With air, missile and artillery power that is superior to those of the Ukrainian military, Russian forces have slowly advanced in Donbas since refocusing their efforts on the region after being pushed back from Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s two main cities.
“All the efforts of the Russian Federation are now focused on capturing the Luhansk region. The city of Severodonetsk is their priority,” said Serhiy Haidai, governor of Luhansk, which with neighbouring Donetsk makes up the coal-rich industrial area known as Donbas.
Russian troops had taken the city’s Hotel Mir, but suffered heavy losses in the process and could not advance further, he added: “Severodonetsk is completely under control… and [its] flag remains Ukrainian.”
Russia said on Saturday it had taken full control of Lyman, an important rail junction in the Donetsk region. Kyiv has not confirmed the loss of the town, but said on Friday that its forces remained in only a few of its districts.
Ukrainian troops in the region are now expected to concentrate on defending the important cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, which are about only 30km and 40km southwest of Lyman, respectively.
“It’s indescribably difficult there. And I am grateful to all those who withstand this onslaught of the occupiers,” Mr Zelenskiy said of the battle for the Donbas area, which since 2014 has been partially controlled by militia led, armed and financed by Russia.
“We work every day to strengthen our defence, primarily on the supply of weapons,” added Mr Zelenskiy, who on Sunday visited the badly war-scarred city of Kharkiv and gave medals to soldiers there.
“Of course, a lot depends on the partners, on their readiness to provide Ukraine with everything necessary to defend freedom. And I expect good news on this next week.”
Ukrainian defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov said his country had started to receive more powerful howitzer artillery pieces from the United States and Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Denmark.
Kyiv says it needs longer-range artillery to match and drive back Moscow’s troops in Donbas, and that stronger defence of its Black Sea coast could help end a Russian naval blockade of ports that is preventing the export of millions of tonnes of Ukrainian grain, fuelling fears of global food supply problems.
Hopes are also rising in Kyiv that the US and possibly Britain will agree to supply it with long-range multi-launch rocket systems that it has so far been denied by western allies.
Germany chancellor Olaf Scholz and French president Emmanuel Macron spoke to Russian leader Vladimir Putin by phone for more than an hour on Saturday, and urged him to end the Black Sea blockade, release Ukrainian prisoners of war and hold direct talks with Mr Zelenskiy.
According to the Kremlin, Mr Putin blamed Kyiv for the impasse in talks and was “critical of the continued dangerous practice of pumping Ukraine with western weapons”.
He also blamed the West and its sanctions on Russia for food supply concerns, and said Moscow was “ready to help find options for unhindered grain exports, including the export of Ukrainian grain from the Black Sea ports”.
“Increasing the supplies of Russian fertilisers and agricultural produce will also help reduce tensions in the global food market, but that will definitely require the lifting of the relevant sanctions,” the Kremlin quoted him as saying. — Additional reporting: Reuters