Ukraine says ‘fate of the country’ could be decided in Donbas battles

·4-min read
Smoke rises after a strike on a factory in Soledar, in the eastern Ukranian Donbas region - Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images
Smoke rises after a strike on a factory in Soledar, in the eastern Ukranian Donbas region - Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

The Russian offensive in the Donbas made significant gains on Tuesday, with Ukrainian officials saying the “fate of the country” could be decided in the ongoing battles.

Moscow’s troops were close to encircling the neighbouring cities of Severodonetsk and Lyschansk, whose capture would give them control of half of the eastern region.

The cities straddle the Siversky Donets river, and Ukrainian forces are heavily dug in after resisting Moscow-backed separatists in the war of 2014.

Amid heavy shelling across the eastern front, Russian forces seized three towns in the Donetsk region of the Donbas, according to its Ukrainian governor.

There were also unconfirmed reports that they had cut off the road through which Kyiv has been resupplying its fighters in Severodonetsk – Ukraine’s last stronghold in Luhansk, the other half of the Donbas.

“Now we are observing the most active phase of the full-scale aggression which Russia unfolded against our country,” Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian ministry of defence, told a televised briefing.

“The situation on the [eastern] front is extremely difficult, because the fate of this country is perhaps being decided [there] right now.”

One of the three Donetsk towns captured was Svitlodarsk, 80km from Severodonetsk, after Ukrainian troops retreated in the face of the Russian advance

Propaganda channels said troops entered Svitlodarsk without fighting, and showed a soldier on a cherry-picker replacing the Ukrainian flag on the town hall with the Russian one (the map below shows the current situation in the region).

On Tuesday evening, Russian forces appeared to have reached the T1302 highway that connects Severodonestk to Bakhmut, a town around a 30-minute drive from Svitlodarsk.

Capturing the so-called “life road” would give the Ukrainian troops no escape route out of Severodonetsk other than back roads and open fields, leaving them facing the same fate as the defenders of Mariupol.

Serhiy Haidai, Luhansk’s regional governor, said the situation was “stable” but “difficult” and insisted Russians had not yet entered either city. “Severodonetsk is fully under the Ukrainian authorities’ control. The armed forces are holding the defence,” he added.

In a video message published on the Telegram messaging app, Mr Haidai estimated that “at least 10,000” Russian troops were in the Luhansk region, as well as “a huge amount” of equipment.  He said: “We understand that the Russians have now thrown all [their] forces in order to capture Severodonetsk.”

The fall of the cities would place the entire Luhansk region under Russian occupation and allow Vladimir Putin to claim partial success in his month-old Donbas offensive.

Moscow has justified its war on Ukraine by saying it wants to “liberate” Russian-speaking people in the Donbas.

In its daily intelligence update on Tuesday morning, the UK Ministry of Defence said: “Russia has increased the intensity of its operations in the Donbas as it seeks to encircle Severodonetsk, Lyschansk and Rubizhne.

“At present, the northern and southern axes of this operation are separated by approximately 25km [16 miles] of Ukrainian-held territory.”

The MoD added that while Ukrainian resistance had been fierce, Russia had achieved “localised successes” due in part to concentrating artillery units.

The Centre for Defence Strategies, a Ukraine-based think tank, said Russian troops were advancing across the Donbas at high speed and were within a mile of the supply line to Severodonetsk.

Rochan Consulting, a military analyst, said Ukrainian defensive lines “had crumbled near Popasna, Lyman and Severodonetsk” in recent days.

“Attacks near Severodonetsk have gathered pace since Sunday. Russian forces are on the verge of entering the city,” it said on Tuesday.

Franz-Stefan Gady, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said ending Kyiv’s control of the road would “massively complicate” Ukrainian attempts to resupply forces in the Donbas.

“Russian forces are slowly but methodically advancing and are systematically trying to cut off Ukrainian forces from their supply lines,” he said.

“The situation for Ukrainian forces is increasingly becoming critical as there is mounting anecdotal evidence that they are running low on ammunition, fuel and other supplies in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area.”

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