Ukrainian forces desperately tried to block a complete Russian takeover of one of the country’s two eastern provinces Tuesday, with Russian troops clawing out incremental gains even as European leaders agreed to a partial oil embargo aimed at starving Moscow’s mammoth war machine.
A combined force of Russian troops, Chechen fighters and pro-Moscow separatists slugged their way deeper into Severodonetsk, the Ukrainian government’s seat of power in the province of Luhansk, seizing a sizable portion of a city that has been almost completely destroyed in the fighting.
“We can say that a third of Severodonetsk is already under our control,” said Leonid Pasechnik, the Moscow-backed leader of the self-proclaimed breakaway Luhansk People’s Republic, in an interview with Russian state news operator Tass. He added that his forces controlled 95% of Luhansk’s territory.
“Our offensive is proceeding perhaps not as fast as we would like,” he said. “But above all, we want to preserve the infrastructure of the city as much as possible.”
Over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Russian assault had already destroyed all of Severodonetsk’s “critical infrastructure.” Another city official last week said about 90% of residential buildings in the city were damaged.
The enemy advance was confirmed by Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk, who told the Associated Press that half of the city was now in Russian hands.
“The situation is very serious and the city is essentially being destroyed ruthlessly block by block,” Striuk said, adding that “the Ukrainian military continues to resist this frenzied push and aggression by Russian forces.”
Elsewhere, Russian forces continued shelling Ukraine’s northeast, while Ukrainian and Russian forces traded control of parts of the country’s south.
Amid the fighting, two Russian soldiers were convicted of war crimes by a Ukrainian court, which sentenced each man to 11½ years in prison. Alexander Bobykin and Alexander Ivanov were charged with shelling civilian buildings in the Kharkiv region Feb. 24, the first day of the Russian invasion. It is the second war-crimes trial since the conflict began.
As the battle for Severodonetsk intensifies, up to 12,000 civilians “remain caught in the crossfire without sufficient access to water, food, medicine or electricity,” Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council aid group, said in a statement Tuesday.
“I am horrified to see Severodonetsk, the thriving city where we had our operational headquarters, become the epicenter of yet another chapter of the brutal war in Ukraine,” he said, adding that “near-constant bombardment” had left civilians with “precious few opportunities” to escape and fighting made aid deliveries impossible.
“We cannot save lives under the hail of grenades,” Egeland said.
In grim proof of his words, French journalist Frederic Leclerc-Imhoff, 32, was killed Monday when Russian bombardment of a road outside Severodonetsk struck a vehicle evacuating civilians from the city, Ukrainian and French officials said.
“Frederic Leclerc-Imhoff was in Ukraine to show the reality of war,” French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.
In his overnight address to the nation, Zelensky acknowledged the “extremely difficult” situation in the eastern region of Donbas, which comprises Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, where he said “the maximum combat power of the Russian army is now gathered.”
Zelensky also accused Moscow of blocking Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, preventing the export of 22 million tons of grain, a move he said could exacerbate a global food crisis.
“This is the volume that was to enter the foreign market. And Russia’s blockade of our exports is destabilizing the situation on a truly global scale,” he said.
He thanked the European Union for approving a sixth package of sanctions aimed at isolating Moscow and starving it of funds to pursue the war. The package includes an embargo on seaborne deliveries of Russian oil by year’s end, which would stop roughly two-thirds of Moscow’s exports to Europe. The required unanimous consent of all 27 EU states was hard-won, with landlocked countries, especially Hungary, successfully demanding that pipeline oil deliveries be excluded from the ban.
Other sanctions include cutting off Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, from SWIFT, the international money transfer network, along with the banning of Russian state-owned broadcasters.
But on the ground in Ukraine, Kyiv’s hold on the Donbas is steadily slipping as its forces wait for Western weapons deliveries, including U.S. long-range rocket systems. President Biden on Monday said he would not send Ukraine any weapons with ranges that could reach targets inside Russia.
The large-scale evacuation of civilians from towns and villages in the Donbas increased Tuesday ahead of an expected offensive on Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the two cities in Donetsk province whose capture would allow Russian troops to encircle a large portion of Ukrainian troops.
Volunteers and Ukrainian soldiers were collecting people — especially the elderly and infirm — and arranging transportation to Kramatorsk and, further west, to the rail hub of Dnipro. Special trains were moving residents to safer zones farther west. In some cases, volunteers were hoisting evacuees who use wheelchairs into trains in the Dnipro station. Those just arriving from the east were being taken to shelters for the night.
“We’re just happy to be getting out alive — the world needs to know what’s happening here,” said Nina Shatanko, 50, of Sloviansk, who was boarding a train for central Ukraine after being evacuated along with her son, Oleksiy, 14, and mother-in-law, Elena Shatanko, 88.
The boy stared blankly at the waiting train. His grandmother, exhausted, was silent as she rested on a chair at the station, awaiting the next move.
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“It’s very hard on both of them, to have to give up everything and relocate,” Shatanko said. “But what choice did we have? Sloviansk is terrible now — shelling all the time. No one wants to die.”
Like many other families, hers had already endured relocation in 2014, when pro-Russian forces seized a portion of the Donbas, sparking an eight-year-war that killed more than 14,000 people and left the area divided before the current invasion.
She said the stress had been too much for her husband, who died three years ago.
“Who would have thought this would happen again?” Shatanko asked. “And this time it’s much worse. …
“Staying in Sloviansk now was just not possible. Maybe we can go back sometime. I just don’t know.”
McDonnell reported from Dnipro and Bulos from Beirut.