Ukraine’s military may have to “pull back” to stronger positions in the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk amid heavy fighting in the city and frontline villages to the south as Russia pursues a breakthrough in Donbas, regional leaders have said.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk, said the Russians were trying to capture the city by Friday, while the road from neighboring Lysychansk to Bakhmut 30 miles south-west was being shelled too frequently to be used.
“Fighting is still going and no one is going to give up the city even if our military has to step back to stronger positions. This will not mean someone is giving up the city – no one will give up anything. But it’s possible [they] will be forced to pull back,” he said in a TV interview.
But on his Telegram channel, the governor insisted a retreat was not being planned. “Do not wide betrayal. Don’t spoil the mood of the armed forces! Nobody is going to surrender Severodonetsk!” he said, adding that Ukraine’s defenders would fight for “every inch”.
Ukrainian advisors say Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk are not strategic cities, and their goal is to degrade the Russian military by fighting hard to for them. But they are the only remaining parts of the Luhansk oblast not under Russian control.
Russia changed its invasion plan in April after its botched attempt to seize the major cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa. The focus turned to Donbas, made up of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, the latter of which remains more under Ukrainian control.
The ministry of defense in Moscow said: “The Ukrainian group in the Donbas suffers significant losses in manpower, weapons and military equipment,” and said that it had caused 480 casualties overnight in fighting in Donbas and elsewhere in the country.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said in his overnight update that Russia was trying to “to attract additional resources in the Donbas” – arguing that Moscow had to turn to reinforcements because of the strength of the resistance.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in its morning update that Russia was attacking Sievierodonetsk and the Ukrainian pocket behind it “from three directions”. It added that “Ukrainian defenses are holding”, saying: “It is unlikely that either side has gained significant ground in the last 24 hours.”
Ukrainian’s military reported increased air raids, plus heavy shelling, rocket-propelled grenade and mortar fire around Bakhmut, which aid agencies reported was becoming increasingly inaccessible to non-military traffic.
Both sides continue to take heavy casualties, although precise estimates are impossible to obtain. Ukrainian officials have said 100 or even 150 people a day are being killed in action, while Zelenskiy said overnight that “Russia has been paying almost 300 lives a day” since it launched the invasion on 24 February.
Fighting also continued around Mykolaiv as Ukraine persisted in trying to stage limited counterattacks towards the occupied city of Kherson. Russia said it had shot down two MiG-29 aircraft and a Mi-8 helicopter in the region, plus 11 drones.
Ukraine said Russia was trying to distribute passports in the occupied Kherson region, offering a payment of 10,000 rubles (£132) as an incentive. Kyiv’s center for national resistance said the same sum was being offered in neighboring Zaporizhzhia region for the collection of “personal data” – but that the “vast majority” of the population was refusing to comply with the occupation administration.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said the onus was on Ukraine to solve the problem of resuming grain shipments – stalled by a Black Sea naval blockade run by Moscow’s navy – at a press conference on Wednesday with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
“We state daily that we’re ready to guarantee the safety of vessels leaving Ukrainian ports and heading for the Bosphorus gulf. To solve the problem, the only thing needed is for the Ukrainians to let vessels out of their ports, either by demining them or by marking out safe corridors,” he said.
Ukraine says it has no faith in the Russians and has no intention of trying to open its ports except as part of a wider international agreement. Meanwhile, a Russian news agency reported that 11 wagons of grain taken from Ukrainian silos in areas occupied by Moscow’s force were being taken to Crimea.
On Tuesday, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, announced that a road corridor had opened between Russia and Crimea, running through the Ukrainian territory occupied since 24 February. The port of Mariupol, scene of the fiercest fighting earlier in the war, had now been de-mined and cargo ships were arriving.