Russian forces fought their way into central Severodonetsk from the north and south, despite fierce resistance on Monday as ground forces attempted to capture the strategic city in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian army also said Russian forces reinforced their positions on the outskirts of the city and brought additional equipment and ammunition to the area to advance their offensive.
“Unfortunately, we have disappointing news, the enemy is entering the city,” Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai told national TV. “The fighting continues, the situation is very difficult.”
Severodonetsk – with a pre-war population of about 100,000 people – is one of several major urban hubs on Russia’s path to take the entire Luhansk region, a prime objective of the Moscow military.
An estimated 15,000 civilians are still trapped by the fighting amid a constant barrage of artillery and air strikes.
Severodonetsk, the largest city still partially controlled by Kiev in the Luhansk region of the Donbas, has been the focus of Russian attacks in recent weeks.
‘Whoever attacks, dies’
Haidai said the neighboring city of Lysychansk is still under Ukrainian control, while the main road to the two cities has been shelled but not blocked.
“She [Russian army] always use the same tactics. They bomb for several hours – three, four, five hours – and then attack. Those who attack, die. Then there will be more shelling and attacks, until they break through somewhere,” Haidai said.
Two civilians were killed and five injured by Russian shelling on Monday, he added.
Severodonetsk’s critical infrastructure has been destroyed and 60 percent of damaged residential buildings cannot be restored, the governor said. He added that three doctors in the area were reported missing after their vehicle was discovered badly damaged.
About a million people are without a water supply in the region, Haidai said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the situation as “indescribably difficult”.
Russians don’t care about victims
Russia has not taken the capital Kiev in the early stages of the war and is trying to consolidate its hold on the Donbas, large parts of which are already controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
Unlike in the previous stages of the war, which Moscow calls a “special military operation” to demilitarize Ukraine and get rid of nationalists who threaten Russian-speakers there, Russia has concentrated its firepower on a small area.
Russian troops previously said they have taken Lyman, a smaller town and former railway junction in the area, and are increasing pressure on Severodonetsk and its sister city Lysychansk.
“Taking Severodonetsk is a main task for the occupying forces,” Zelenskyy said, adding that “the Russians don’t care about casualties.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told French TF1 television on Sunday that Moscow’s “unreserved priority is the liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”, adding that Russia considers them “independent states”.
He also suggested that other regions of Ukraine should be able to establish close ties with Russia once their military gains are consolidated.
Deteriorating conditions raised fears that Severodonetsk could become the next Mariupol, a city on the Sea of Azov that spent nearly three months under Russian siege before the last Ukrainian fighters surrendered.
Severodonetsk, 143 km (89 miles) south of the Russian border, has emerged in recent days as the epicenter of Moscow’s quest to conquer the entire eastern industrial Donbas region of Ukraine. Spanning the strategically important Siverskyi Donetsk River, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk Province.
Zelenskyy, meanwhile, visited soldiers in Kharkiv, where Ukrainian fighters pushed back Russian troops from nearby positions a few weeks ago.
“I feel boundless pride in our defenders. Every day, at the risk of their lives, they fight for the freedom of Ukraine,” he wrote on Telegram’s messaging app after the trip.
Russia has continued its bombardment of the northeastern city from afar, and explosions were heard shortly after the president’s visit.
While a third of the northeastern region remains under Russian control, “we will certainly liberate the entire area,” Zelenskyy promised.
“Wait a minute, we’re close”
In the south, Ukrainian forces pushed back this weekend, forcing Russian troops into “unfavorable positions” around the villages of Andriyivka, Lozovo and Bilohorka in Kherson, the country’s military leadership said in a statement.
“Kherson, wait a minute. Were close!” Ukraine’s General Staff tweeted as troops counterattacked in the only region of the country completely controlled by Russian forces.
Kherson, which borders Crimea, was taken by Russian forces in March and Moscow-backed officials in the region have recently pushed for annexation.
Though limited in nature, the attack could result in the stretching of Russian forces, with the General Staff claiming the move forced Moscow to send reserves to the area.
Meanwhile, the British Ministry of Defense said on Monday that Russia appears to have suffered devastating losses to middle and junior officers, raising the prospect of weaker military effectiveness. Brigade and battalion commanders were likely deployed to the most dangerous positions, while non-commissioned officers had to lead low-level tactical actions, the ministry said on Twitter in its latest intelligence update.
“With multiple credible reports of localized mutinies among Russian forces in Ukraine, a lack of experienced and credible platoon and company commanders is likely to arise. [in] a further decline in morale and continued ill-discipline,” it said.
No immediate response from the Russian military to the assessment was available.