Ukrainian troops occupied just one-fifth of the eastern city of Severodonetsk on Wednesday, but there were still hopes they could prevent Russia from taking full control, the city council chief said.
Russian troops control 60 percent of the city and Ukraine controls 20 percent, with the rest becoming “no man’s land,” said Oleksandr Stryuk, Ukraine’s head of city government.
“The 20 percent is fiercely defended by our armed forces,” Stryuk told Reuters news agency. “Our troops maintain defensive lines. Attempts are being made to expel the Russian troops.”
“We have hope that despite everything we will liberate the city and not allow it to be completely occupied,” he said.
Earlier, Ukraine’s general staff said Russian forces were pounding infrastructure in eastern and southern regions, including Severodonetsk.
Russian forces invaded the eastern Ukrainian city, the largest still held by Kiev in the Luhansk region, late last week after weeks of shelling.
If Russia takes the city and its smaller twin Lysychansk on the higher western bank of the Siverskyi Donets River, it would take all of Luhansk, one of two provinces in the eastern Donbas region that Moscow claims on behalf of separatists and a major war target of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Stryuk said there are still 12,000 to 13,000 people in the city, but all essential infrastructure had been destroyed and access to the city to deliver food or other aid was impossible.
“They live in conditions of constant shelling, and now street fighting is also taking place, increasing the danger to the civilian population.”
Severodonetsk, a Soviet-era city, is home to a large chemical factory. Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said a Russian airstrike struck the factory on Tuesday, blew up a tank of toxic nitric acid and released a plume of pink smoke.
Russia “attacked the Azot factory from an airplane, resulting in the release of toxic substances,” Gaidai said, urging residents to stay indoors.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian attacks in the area, “including blind aerial bombardments, are simply insane”.
The leader of the pro-Moscow self-declared People’s Republic of Luhansk, Leonid Pasechnik, told TASS news agency that Russian proxies had progressed more slowly than expected to protect city infrastructure and “exercise caution around the chemical plants”.
West of Severodonetsk, in the city of Sloviansk, the AFP news agency reported three people dead and six others injured in a rocket attack that destroyed buildings. In Soledar, between Sloviansk and Severodonetsk, at least one person has been killed and two others injured, AFP reported.
Meanwhile, the United States said it would supply advanced missiles to Kiev to help Moscow negotiate an end to the war.
US President Joe Biden has announced the delivery of precision missile systems and ammunition capable of hitting Russian targets at long range, part of a $700 million weapons package expected to be unveiled Wednesday.
“We acted quickly to send Ukraine a significant amount of weapons and ammunition so that it can fight on the battlefield and sit in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table,” Biden wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times.
A senior Biden administration official said the new supplies — which come on top of billions of dollars of equipment such as drones and anti-aircraft missiles — include the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which Kiev said is “critical”. to counter Russian missile attacks.
Jonathan Finer, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, addressed concerns that weapons like HIMARS could bring the US into direct conflict and said Washington had asked Ukraine for guarantees that the missiles would not hit Russia.
However, Russia warned of an increased risk of direct confrontation with the US.
“We believe that the United States is deliberately and diligently adding fuel to the fire,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, adding that such supplies would not encourage Ukraine’s leadership to resume stalled peace talks.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Wednesday that Berlin will provide Kiev with its IRIS-T medium-range surface air defense system.
Zelenskyy has called for more weapons while criticizing the European Union, which agreed on Monday to cut Russian oil imports, for failing to ratify energy from Russia earlier.
The Russian invasion of its neighbor also threatens a global food crisis, effectively taking Ukraine’s massive grain crop off the global market.
Pope Francis on Wednesday called for all blockades on wheat exports from Ukraine to be lifted, saying grain should not be used as a “weapon of war”.
Putin launched on February 24 what he calls a “special military operation” to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. Ukraine and its western allies call this an unfounded pretext for a war of aggression.