LVIV, UKRAINE (AP) – Russian troops control about 80 per cent of the fiercely contested eastern city of Sievierodonetsk and have destroyed all three bridges leading out of it but Ukrainians were still trying to evacuate the wounded, a regional official said on Tuesday.
Governor of the eastern Luhansk region Serhiy Haidai acknowledged that a mass evacuation of civilians from Sievierodonetsk now was “simply not possible” due to the relentless shelling and fighting. Ukrainian forces have been pushed to the industrial outskirts of the city.
“There is still an opportunity for the evacuation of the wounded, communication with the Ukrainian military and local residents,” he told The Associated Press by telephone, adding that Russian soldiers have not yet completely blocked off the strategic city.
About 12,000 people remain in Sievierodonetsk, from a pre-war population of 100,000. More than 500 civilians are sheltering in the Azot chemical plant, which is being pounded by the Russians, according to Haidai.
In all, 70 civilians were evacuated from the Luhansk region in the last day, the governor said.
A Russian general, meanwhile, said a humanitarian corridor was opened yesterday to evacuate civilians from the Azot plant. Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev said evacuees would be taken to the town of Svatovo, 60 kilometres to the north in territory under the control of Russian and separatist forces.
He said the plan was made after Ukraine called for an evacuation corridor leading to territory it controls.
Head of the National Defence Management Centre Mizintsev is accused by Ukraine of human rights violations while commanding troops during the long siege of Mariupol, Ukraine’s key port on the Sea of Azov, which has been taken over by the Russians.
Russian forces in the past few weeks have pressed hard to capture Ukraine’s eastern industrial Donbas area, which borders Russia and is made up of the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.
“The losses, unfortunately, are painful, but we have to hold out,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late on Tuesday in his nightly video address. “The more losses the enemy suffers there, the less strength it will have to continue the aggression. Therefore, the Donbas is key to determining who will dominate in the coming weeks.”
As he does almost every day, Zelenskyy pleaded for more and faster deliveries of Western arms, this time specifically asking for anti-missile defence systems.
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said on Tuesday the military had only received around 10 per cent of the Western weapons it had requested “to create parity with the Russian army”.
“No matter how much effort Ukraine makes, no matter how professional our army, without the help of Western partners we will not be able to win this war,” Malyar said in a televised news conference.
She said Ukraine uses 5,000 to 6,000 artillery rounds a day, while Russia uses 10 times more.
In recent days, Ukrainian officials have spoken of the heavy human cost of the war, with the fierce fighting in the east becoming an artillery battle that has seen Kyiv’s forces outgunned and outnumbered.
Malyar said every day of delay means the loss of lives of more Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. “And therefore, unfortunately, we cannot wait very long, because the situation is very difficult,” she added.
With the conflict now in its fourth month, the battle of Donbas could dictate the course of the war.
If Russia prevails, Ukraine will lose not only land but perhaps the bulk of its most capable military forces, opening the way for Moscow to grab more territory and dictate its terms to Kyiv.
A Russian failure, however, could lay the grounds for a Ukrainian counteroffensive – and possible political upheaval for the Kremlin.