Russian forces are now in control of around 70% of Severodonetsk and heavy fighting is ongoing in the eastern Ukrainian city, the regional governor has told Sky News.
Speaking from a secret location inside the Luhansk Oblast, Serhiy Hayday admitted victory in the city would be a big morale boost for Russia, but he played down the wider military importance.
He said Ukrainian troops might make a tactical retreat from the city to save lives and take up defensive positions outside in order to thwart further Russian advances:
It comes as the EU has agreed to ban around 75% of Russian oil imports in an effort to further squeeze Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Mr Hayday told Sky News: “It seems to me, but I’m not a military person, that there is no sense in losing a lot of soldiers to recapture the city which has no strategic military sense.”
“In a military sense the city doesn’t matter because for example the neighbouring city of Lysychansk has more high ground and the military will have better positions.”
He continued: “We’ve restrained the Russian army for more than three months, it must be understood, and they sent all their troops to capture the Luhansk region.
“The longer we resist, then the more we get foreign weapons, rearm the troops and then we can at least to stop the Russian army, later even counterattack.”
Evacuation efforts were suspended in Severodonetsk on Tuesday as a result of the fighting which is now reportedly street-to-street.
Other key developments:
• Russia’s defence ministry says its forces have downed a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet in Ukraine’s Mykolaiv region
• A ship has left a port in Mariupol for the first time since Kremlin forces captured the region, Interfax news agency reports
• Belarus will conduct military mobilisation exercises in June and July near the Ukrainian border, according to state news agency BelTA
Reporting from the city, Sky’s Alex Crawford found tensions running high among those who chose to stay, with most of its 120,000 people having fled the brutal bombardment by Russian artillery.
The Russian government has focussed its forces on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov describing it yesterday as an “unconditional priority”.
Russian-backed separatists control part of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions which jointly make up Donbas, and President Vladimir Putin wants it entirely in pro-Russian hands.
If Severodonetsk is captured, it would give Moscow control of the whole of Luhansk – and would be his biggest victory in the invasion so far.
Life ‘hell’ for people in Luhansk
On Monday, Russian forces were at the eastern edge of Severodonetsk – and had taken a power station and a hotel. Overnight, they have slowly moved in towards the centre of the city.
Small Ukrainian units which were holding up the Russian advance have had to pull back, with reports suggesting they are moving to the west of the Siverskyi Donets river, towards the city of Lysychansk.
Governor Hayday said life was “hell” for people still living in Luhansk – there is no electricity, gas and water, and the region is under constant bombardment which is preventing humanitarian aid getting in – and said he had seen many examples of alleged war crimes.
“Our children are dying. Russians are dropping bombs on schools where people are hiding. Russians have destroyed all electricity and water substations. People have no water. They shot main gas pipes, they destroyed all our hospitals. Many civilians have died.
“The firing is so intense that people have to bury their neighbours somewhere in their yards. Sometimes shelling even happens during the burials.
“One pro-Ukrainian volunteer was shot dead directly in a wheelchair at his house. Our women are being raped and tortured. The Russian army is committing a lot of war crimes here.”
Russian ‘gains are being held’
Moscow’s main objective likely remains the encirclement of Severodonetsk and the closure of the pocket around Ukrainian forces in Luhansk Oblast, said the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD).
“Progress has been slow but gains are being held,” the MoD added.
“Routes into the pocket likely remain under Ukrainian control. Russia has achieved greater local successes than earlier in the campaign by massing forces and fires in a relatively small area. This forces Russia to accept risk elsewhere in occupied territory.”
Such is the scale of fighting and destruction, Severodonetsk is turning into “another Mariupol”, according to security analyst Professor Michael Clarke.
However, the push there has weakened Russian forces elsewhere – in Kharkiv, further north, the country’s second largest city, and also in Kherson in the southwest, towards Mykolaiv, the gateway to the strategic Black Sea port city of Odesa.
The port city of Kherson was one of the first in Ukraine to fall under Russian control.
“They are clearly putting the Russians under pressure in Kherson, which from the Ukrainian point of view will give the Russians something else to worry about while they are pushing on in Severodonetsk, because if they are losing ground in Kherson they would have to divert forces away to do something about that,” said Prof Clarke.