LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — Russian forces appeared poised to tighten the noose on thousands of Ukrainian troops near two strategically important cities in eastern Ukraine’s hotly contested Donbas region on Sunday, launching an attack on Ukrainian frontlines that Forced Ukraine to rush reinforcements to the area.
On a day of fighting that involved even territory believed to be safely in Ukrainian hands, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that the war would continue for years to come. can continue. They urged Ukraine’s western allies to settle for the long haul as Russia acted aggressively to tear down Ukraine through what Mr Johnson, writing in The Sunday Times in London, called a “camp of attrition”.
Russians broke through for the first time on Sunday in Toshkivka, a small town southeast of the Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk metropolitan area, where vicious street-by-street fighting and artillery duels have raged for weeks. Sergei Haidai, the regional military governor, acknowledged that the Russians were “successful” in the Toshkivka area, but said the occupiers were “defeated” after Ukrainian artillery deployed Toshkivka’s defenses.
It was not clear by nightfall on Sunday who had controlled Toshkivka. However, if Moscow’s forces manage to eventually encircle Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, thousands of Ukrainian fighters defending the two cities could be stranded. That would bring a hard-fought military victory for the Kremlin and move Russian forces one step closer to fulfilling President Vladimir V. Putin’s goal of conquering the entire eastern Donbas region of Ukraine.
“The heavy fighting in Sievierodonetsk continues,” Haidai said.
Phone traffic in the area is limited and the bridges to Sievierodonetsk have been destroyed, making it difficult to get an accurate picture of the situation there. The Institute for the Study of War, a research group in Washington, said Russia had made “marginal gains” around the city, but its offensive on the rest of Donbas had “largely stalled”.
“Russian forces are likely to be able to capture Sievierodonetsk in the coming weeks, but at the cost of concentrating most of their available troops in this small area,” the institute said in its latest assessment.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Russian soldiers and Moscow-backed separatists had also claimed control of Metolkine, just southeast of Sievierodonetsk. Russian state news agency Tass said many Ukrainian fighters had surrendered there, although it was not possible to independently verify the claims.
As the Sievierodonetsk area came into greater danger on Sunday and Russian attacks intensified across much of Ukraine — including renewed shelling at Kharkiv in the north, attacks on Mykolaiv in the south and destruction of infrastructure in the eastern and central regions of the country – made it clear that the war could still flare up well beyond Donbas, where Russia has refocused its military efforts after failing to take Kiev in the spring.
Ukraine faces an increasingly grim and bloody battle in the east, where Russia is using long-range artillery to bombard cities and military positions. Ukrainian officials have complained that their allies’ advanced weapons are arriving too slowly to negate Russia’s firepower advantages and that as many as 200 Ukrainian soldiers are being killed every day.
The slow conflict in Donbas is undermining the morale of both sides, British defense intelligence said Sunday.
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“Ukrainian troops have likely faced desertion in recent weeks,” agency says said in his latest public review† But it described the problems in the Russian ranks as more systemic and serious, including “cases of entire Russian units refusing orders and armed standoffs between officers and their troops.”
“The moral problems in the Russian armed forces are probably so great that they limit Russia’s ability to achieve operational goals,” it said.
In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest, from which Russian troops were expelled several weeks ago, Russian missiles hit a tank repair factory, a Russian military spokesman said Sunday, destroying what the Russian defense ministry said had hit two Urugans. were rocket launchers. †
Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on Sunday that “Russia is trying to make Kharkiv a frontline city,” describing the situation there as difficult.
Russian attacks also targeted a gas processing plant near the eastern city of Izium, causing a major fire and destroying an oil depot in the central region of Dnipropetrovsk, killing one person and injuring 11 others, Ukrainian officials said.
In the Ukrainian-owned port city of Mykolaiv, Ukrainian officials said Russian missiles had also destroyed businesses and infrastructure over the weekend. Two people were killed Saturday in the village of Halystsynove in the same region in a separate attack, an attack that started a fire, regional officials said.
But it is in the Donbas, an area of rolling plains, farmland and coal mining towns not far from the Russian border, that Moscow has deployed most of its military might in recent weeks. The Sievierodonetsk Pocket, as military officials call the area around Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, is about three-quarters surrounded by Russian troops, leaving only a narrow gap to the west where Ukrainian troops enter and exit through village roads often shelled by Russia.
Russian troops are sneaking forward to close the gap. On Sunday, they appeared to partially succeed in Toshkivka, which has served an important part of Ukraine’s defensive wall.
Ukrainian artillery soon engaged them in fierce fighting, Mr Haidai said, and the outcome was unclear.
On Sunday afternoon, Ukrainian main battle tanks and several multi-launch Grad missile systems were seen heading toward the village, with smoke billowing from their chassis and swirling down country lanes.
If Russian forces manage to breach the defense lines, they will diminish the Ukrainian forces’ ability to maneuver into the Sievierodonetsk pocket. The advance would also allow Russian forces to threaten the few remaining supply routes to Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk, where about 70,000 civilians remain, many too old or weak to evacuate.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky this month said the “fate” of much of eastern Ukraine was decided in the battle for the two cities.
Their strategic importance partly explains why Ukraine has chosen to continue the street fighting there, a strategy fraught with risk. Fighting at close range in Sievierodonetsk, the Ukrainian thought, deprives Russia of the opportunity to exploit its huge advantage in artillery weapons.
But while Russian troops have surrounded soldiers in Sievierodonetsk and support troops in Lysychansk, Russian artillery gun lines have fired roads, bridges and Ukrainian troop positions with thousands of shells a day, according to Ukrainian estimates.
Still, the street fighting in the city and the battles in the fields around it cost the Russians many lives and equipment, more than the Ukrainians lost, Ukrainian commanders said. After months of fighting, the Russian military in Ukraine is exhausted and approaching the limits of its resources, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former defense minister of Ukraine, said in an interview on Sunday.
The Ukrainian approach, he and other analysts said, is to make every advance as precious as possible.
“Despite its precarious position, Ukraine has chosen to fight for these cities in an effort to exhaust Russian forces,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research group in Virginia. He said in a recent analysis that if the Russians broke through in Sievierodonetsk, their struggle for labor could still hamper their ability to make progress.
The military governor of Luhansk, Mr. Haidai, said Russian troops were strengthening their reserves in the area. As heavy shelling ravaged the towns on Sunday, Mr. Haidai that Russian troops had bombed the Azot chemical plant, one of the last strongholds of Ukrainian fighters in Sievierodonetsk, where hundreds of civilians were also said to be sheltering.
Under political pressure to win a victory, the former defense minister, Mr Zagorodnyuk, said the Russian military is casually throwing resources into the fray.
“They need to show their leadership that they have achieved something,” he said of the troops and weapons thrown into the battle.