KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (AFP) – Russian forces pushed into a major city in eastern Ukraine and clashed with Kyiv forces on Monday in a battle the mayor said left the city in ruins and forced tens of thousands of people from their homes.
Military analysts described the battle for Sievierodonetsk as part of the Kremlin’s race against time. The city is key to Russian efforts to quickly complete the capture of the eastern industrial region of Donbass – before more Western weapons arrive to bolster Ukraine’s defense.
Weapons from the West helped Kyiv’s forces thwart a Russian advance in the capital In the first weeks of the war. This failure forced Moscow to withdraw, regroup and pursue the limited goal of capturing Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatists had already controlled swathes of territory and been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years.
“The Kremlin believes that it cannot waste time and should use the last opportunity to expand the territory controlled by the separatists because the arrival of Western weapons into Ukraine may make this impossible,” said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.
But in a potential setback for Ukraine, President Joe Biden appeared to dismiss reports that the United States was considering sending long-range missile systems into the country.
Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said the Russian focus on Severodonetsk had already left the city “completely destroyed”. Artillery shells destroyed vital infrastructure and damaged 90% of buildings, and electricity and communications were largely cut off for a city that was once home to 100,000 people.
“The death toll is rising by the hour, but we are unable to count the dead and wounded amid the street fighting,” Stryuk told The Associated Press in a phone interview, adding that Moscow’s forces advanced a few more blocks toward the city center. .
He said that only about 12,000 to 13,000 residents remained, hiding in basements and bunkers to escape Russian bombardment – a situation that recalls the siege of Mariupol that trapped the population and led to some of the worst suffering of the war.
Stryuk estimated that 1,500 civilians have died in his city since the war began, from Russian attacks as well as from harsh conditions, including lack of medicine or medical treatment. More than 20,000 feared killed in Mariupol.
French journalist Frédéric Leclerc Imhoff, 32, died on Monday near Severodonetsk. When he was hit by shrapnel from the bombing while covering the Ukrainians during the evacuation of the area, according to his employer, the French BFM TV station.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military said Russian forces had reinforced their positions in the northeastern and southeastern suburbs of Severodonetsk, 145 kilometers (90 miles) south of the Russian border in an area that is the last Ukrainian government-held enclave in Luhansk.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Hayday said the Russians were moving towards nearby Lysichansk. He added that in addition to the journalist, two civilians were killed and five others were wounded in the latest Russian bombing.
Zhdanov said the Russian advance on Severodonetsk and Lysechhansk on both sides of the strategically important Seversky Donetsk River is part of an overall push.
Zhdanov said the intensity of the recent fighting and the fact that Russia had sent troops from its far east came as a surprise to Ukrainians trying to hold out until more weapons arrived.
“The Ukrainian army cannot lose as many soldiers as the Russians,” Zhdanov said. Ukrainians hope that Russia will soon run out of power.
The Russians are taking advantage of the slow delivery of additional weapons and making up for the difficulties their forces faced early in the war, said Mykola Sonhorovsky, a military expert at the Kyiv-based Razumkov Research Center.
“It is clear that Russia is trying to avenge its past failures in Ukraine and achieve at least some of its goals,” Sonhorovsky said.
On Monday, Biden told reporters outside the White House that there are no US plans to send long-range missile systems to Ukraine, amid reports that such a move is being considered.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council, said this was a “reasonable” decision.
“Otherwise, if our cities are attacked, the Russian armed forces will carry out their threat and strike at the centers where they take such criminal decisions,” he said.
“Some of them are not in Kyiv,” Medvedev added.
Russian pressure also continued in the south on Monday. Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said artillery shelling on the shipyard in the southern port of Mykolaiv destroyed Ukrainian armored vehicles parked there.
In the Kherson region, the deputy head of the Russian-appointed regional administration Kirill Strimosov told the Russian state news agency TASS that grain from last year’s harvest is being delivered to Russian buyers, adding that “it is clear that there is a lot of grain here.” Ukraine accused Russia By looting grain from territory controlled by its forces, the United States alleged that Moscow was endangering global food supplies by preventing Ukraine from exporting its crop.
Meanwhile, Russia has pressured the West to lift sanctions while seeking to blame a growing food crisis – which has driven up prices in Africa..
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged France not to succumb to such “blackmail” at a meeting Monday with French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna.
Zelensky urged the European Union to intensify its sanctions against Russia, especially on its lucrative energy sector. He was scheduled to address a gathering of European Union leaders This wrestles with whether to target Russian oil in a new set of sanctions.
Karmanau reported from Lviv. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
Follow the Associated Press’ coverage of the Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine