Ukrainian officials have said the country’s military is slowing Russia’s bid to occupy the rest of the heavily damaged Donbas region amid fierce artillery battles along the front line, as shelling killed and injured several more civilians in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Russian troops are now trying to consolidate control over the eastern Luhansk region after pushing Ukrainian troops out of the city of Lysychansk, while intensifying artillery fire on government-held towns and cities in neighbouring Donetsk region. The two provinces make up the Donbas area that Moscow has made the focus of current military operations.
“We are holding back the enemy at the border between Luhansk region and Donetsk region. The Russian occupiers are suffering significant losses,” Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai said on Wednesday.
“Yesterday, the Russians tried to advance towards Donetsk region and to cut off the Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway... but under pressure from our defenders, the enemy was forced to retreat,” he added.
“Luhansk region even now is fighting. Almost all the territory has been captured, but in two settlements fighting continues.”
Mr Haidai’s claims could not be verified, and officials in Donetsk region have urged residents to evacuate to safer parts of Ukraine in anticipation of a major Russia push to seize the cities of Bakhmut, Kramatorsk and Slovyansk in the coming weeks.
Russian shelling is increasing on all three government-controlled cities, and several civilians have been killed and injured in recent days in what Ukraine says is intentional targeting of residential areas by Moscow’s forces.
“The city has been shelled with cluster bombs for the past two weeks... A total of 17 people have been killed and 67 injured in Slovyansk since the start of hostilities [in February],” said Slovyansk mayor Vadym Lyakh.
“There has been no central water supply for more than a month… There are also problems with power supply. Periodically, a third of the population remains without electricity. As soon as we restore it, the enemy destroys it again,” he added, noting that about a quarter of Slovyansk’s pre-war population of 100,000 is still in the city.
“Street fighting in Slovyansk is still a long way off. The enemy still needs to overcome our fortified areas. Ukrainian defenders are bravely protecting the [regional] borders. They are in dugouts and prepared for attacks,” he insisted.
Russian troops finally took control of Lysychansk, 80km east of Slovyansk, after weeks of heavy shelling and then street fighting in the city and in neighbouring Sieveriodonetsk.
Ukraine’s leaders say its forces ultimately withdrew from the area to minimise casualties, and urge western allies to send more heavy arms and ammunition to help stop and then expel the invaders; Kyiv’s troops are now believed to be using such long-range weapons to strike Russian bases and arms stores deep inside occupied territory.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy – who welcomed Taoiseach Micheál Martin to Kyiv on Wednesday – said his country was “counting on the delivery of powerful air defence systems” from foreign partners in the near future, to reduce the threat from almost daily Russian cruise missile strikes.