KYIV, UUKRAINE (AP) – Russia drew closer to its goal of fully capturing Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of coal mines and factories as the Kremlin claimed to have taken control of 97 per cent of one of the two provinces that make up the Donbas region.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that Moscow’s forces hold nearly all of Luhansk province. And it appears that Russia now occupies roughly half of Donetsk province, according to Ukrainian officials and military analysts.
After abandoning its attempt to storm Kyiv two months ago, Russia declared that taking the entire Donbas is its main objective.
Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian government forces in the Donbas since 2014, and the region has borne the brunt of the Russian onslaught in recent weeks.
Early in the war, Russian troops also took control of the entire Kherson region and a large part of the Zaporizhzhia region, both in the south.
Russian officials and their local appointees have talked about plans for those regions to either declare their independence or be folded into Russia.
But in what may be the latest instance of anti-Russian sabotage inside Ukraine, Russian state media said on Tuesday that an explosion at a cafe in the city of Kherson wounded four people.
TASS called the apparent bombing in the Russian-occupied city a “terror act”.
Before the February 24 invasion, Ukrainian officials said Russia controlled some seven per cent of the country, including the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, and areas held by the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces hold 20 per cent of the country.
While Russia has superior firepower, the Ukrainian defenders are entrenched and have shown the ability to counterattack.
Zelenskyy said Russian forces made no significant advances in the eastern Donbas region over the past day.
“The absolutely heroic defence of the Donbas continues,” he said late on Tuesday in his nightly video address. Zelenskyy said the Russians clearly did not expect to meet so much resistance and are now trying to bring in additional troops and equipment. He said the same was true in the Kherson region.
Speaking earlier to a Financial Times conference, Zelenskyy insisted on Ukraine’s need to defeat Russia on the battlefield but also said he is still open to peace talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Shoigu said Moscow’s forces have seized the residential quarters of Sievierodonetsk and are fighting to take control of an industrial zone on the city’s outskirts and nearby towns.
Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk have seen heavy fighting in recent weeks. They are among a few cities and towns in the Luhansk region still holding out against the Russian invasion.