Ukrainian forces hold out while Russia attacks Severodonetsk wasteland

  • Russian troops are slowly advancing into the city center of Severodonetsk
  • Thousands of civilians trapped in Severodonetsk
  • EU out of trouble over Russian oil embargo

Kyiv (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces held out in Severodonetsk on Tuesday to resist an all-out Russian assault to seize a wasteland that Moscow has made the main target of its invasion in recent days.

Both sides said Russian forces now control between a third and a half of the city. Russia’s separatist proxies admitted that its capture took longer than expected, despite one of the largest ground offensives of the war.

Western military analysts say Moscow has drained manpower and firepower from the rest of the front to focus on Severodonetsk, hoping that a large-scale attack on the small industrial city would achieve one of its stated goals, to secure the surrounding Luhansk province for separatist agents.

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“We can already say that a third of the Severodonetsk region is already under our control,” Leonid Bashnik, leader of the pro-Moscow Luhansk People’s Republic, was quoted by the TASS news agency as saying.

He said that fighting was raging in the city, but that Russian forces did not advance as quickly as he had hoped, claiming that the pro-Moscow forces wanted to “preserve the city’s infrastructure” and were moving slowly out of caution around chemical plants.

The head of the Ukrainian city administration, Oleksandr Stryuk, said that the Russians now control half of the city.

“Unfortunately…the city was split in half. But at the same time the city is still defending itself. It’s still Ukrainian,” he said, advising those still trapped inside to stay in the cellars.

Ukraine says Russia has destroyed all of the city’s vital infrastructure with relentless bombing, followed by wave after wave of mass ground offensives that have claimed huge numbers of casualties.

Thousands of residents are still trapped. District Governor Serhiy Gaidai said Russian forces were advancing towards the city center, but slowly.

Gaidai said there did not appear to be a danger of Ukrainian forces being surrounded, although they might eventually have to retreat across the Seversky Donets River to Lysichansk, the twin city on the opposite bank.

The evacuation of civilians is no longer possible, said Stryuk, head of the city administration. Authorities called off efforts to evacuate residents after shrapnel killed a French journalist on Monday.

Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s long-running relief agency from Severodonetsk, said he was “terrified” it would be destroyed.

“We fear that up to 12,000 civilians will remain trapped in the crossfire of the city, with no access to water, food, medicine or electricity. The near-constant bombing forces civilians to seek shelters and bomb cellars, with only few chances for those trying to escape” .

Elsewhere on the battlefield, there were few reports of major transformations. In the east, Ukraine says Moscow is trying to attack other areas along the main front, and is regrouping to push towards the city of Solvyansk. In the south, Ukraine in recent days has claimed to have repelled Russian forces on the bank of the Inholets River, on the border of the Russian-controlled Kherson Province.

oil ban

Having failed to capture Kyiv, was expelled from northern Ukraine and made only limited advances elsewhere in the east, Moscow concentrated its power on Severodonetsk, which had a pre-war population of about 110,000.

Victory there and across the river at Lysychansk would bring complete control of Luhansk, one of the two eastern provinces claimed by Moscow on behalf of the separatist proxies.

But the massive battle came at a huge cost, which some Western military experts say could harm Russia’s ability to fend off counterattacks.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War wrote this week that “Putin is now throwing men and munitions” at Severodonetsk, “as if taking it would win the war on the Kremlin. He’s wrong.”

“When the battle of Severodonetsk ends, regardless of which side controls the city, the Russian offensive on the operational and strategic levels will likely have reached its climax, giving Ukraine the opportunity to resume its counterattacks at the operational level to push the Russian forces back.”

Overnight, the European Union approved its toughest sanctions against Russia since the war began, targeting for the first time Russian energy sales, Moscow’s main source of revenue.

The European Union will now ban the import of Russian oil by sea. Officials said that would halt two-thirds of Russia’s oil exports to Europe initially, and 90% by the end of this year as Germany and Poland gradually reduce imports via pipelines. Read more

But Hungary, which relies on Russian oil via a massive Soviet-era pipeline, got an exception. Read more

Ukraine says sanctions are taking too long and still full of loopholes to block Russia: “If you ask me, I would say it’s too slow, too late and definitely not enough,” said Ihor Zhovkva, Vice President Volodymyr. Zelensky’s office.

However, the foreign ministry welcomed the new EU plan and said the oil restrictions would cost Moscow tens of billions of dollars.

Meanwhile, Moscow has halted gas supplies to several EU countries over a row over how to receive payments, although moves so far, during warm months when demand is lower, have not had the biggest impact so far. Russia on Tuesday shut down its main Dutch gas buyer, Gastera, which said it would find supplies elsewhere. Read more

Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February, claiming that Moscow aimed to disarm and “discredit” its neighbor. Ukraine and its Western allies describe this as a baseless excuse to launch a war for territorial control.

Ukraine accuses Moscow of committing war crimes on a large scale, crushing cities with artillery, and killing and raping civilians in areas it has occupied. Russia denies targeting civilians and says the accusations are fabricated.

In the second war crimes trial to be held in Ukraine, two Russian soldiers were sentenced on Tuesday to 11 and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to bombing civilian targets. Ukraine’s chief prosecutor said Kyiv had identified more than 600 suspected Russian war crimes suspects and had begun trials of about 80.

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Reporting by Reuters offices. Writing by Simon Cameron Moore and Peter Graf; Editing by Stephen Coates and Alison Williams

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