Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers appeared to be all but encircled as Russian troops advanced Thursday around two strategically important cities in eastern Ukraine in what a senior Ukrainian official called a “fearful climax” of the battle for the Donbas, signaling that the fall of a significant part of the region was imminent.
The comment, from Ukrainian presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych, highlighted the stark contrast between the battlefield and growing international diplomacy in support of Ukraine as the war approaches its fourth month.
Millions of people are displaced, cities are in ruin and aid-raid sirens have become a terrifying part of everyday life across wide swaths of the nation even as Western support for it grows. Meeting Thursday in Brussels, European Union representatives were expected to grant Ukraine status as EU candidate. The idea that once faced significant hurdles in the bloc has gained greater appeal amid the protracted war and economic sanctions against Russia.
The decision would not guarantee admission to the EU. It would also not come with additional security for Ukraine. In a process that could ultimately take at least decade, Ukraine would need to pass economic and political requirements and gain unanimous approval from the EU’s 27 members.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has called the EU meeting a “crucial moment” for the nation, said in an overnight address that the war was reaching a tipping point and repeated pleas for more help from Western powers.
“We must free our land and achieve victory, but more quickly, a lot more quickly,” Zelensky said early Thursday as he asked for bigger and faster armaments.
The U.S. and other Western countries have increased shipments of heavy weaponry to Ukraine. Still, Zelensky and Kyiv’s military officials say Moscow’s military superiority is hard to match in what has become a sustained artillery battle in the east. Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzianyk estimated this week that Russian fire often outnumbers Ukrainian fire six-to-one.
“There were massive air and artillery strikes in Donbas. The occupier’s goal here is unchanged. They want to destroy the entire Donbas step-by-step,” Zelensky said in his overnight video address. The president said “Russian troops aim to turn any city into Mariupol,” the major port city that Moscow overtook last month.
The Russian advance around the sister cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk underscored the do-or-die strategy the Ukrainians have adopted for their defense.
Ukrainians have slowed Moscow’s push and Russians have incurred loses as they gain ground in the Donbas. But the cost has been devastating and often left Ukrainian defenders with no path of escape.
In Lysychansk, Ukrainian personnel said Thursday that the Russian army had made gains along the Severski Donets river with apparent aims to surround Lysychansk from the north and the south. That would leave leave thousands of Ukrainian soldiers trapped. The river separates Lysychansk from Severodonetsk.
It was not clear Thursday if the Russian encirclement around the cities had fully closed. One aid worker who was delivering assistance to Lysychansk said he could still make it from the west into the city but that the Russians were pressing closer to cut off access. He said Russians had already overrun suburbs south of Lysychansk.
Alexander, a special forces police instructor in Lysychansk, acknowledged the situation was bad. “It’s hard, we understand,” he said Thursday. “But we stand.”
The war, now largely concentrated in the east, has also continued elsewhere in the Donbas in addition to other regions.
Shelling reported overnight in the second-largest city, Kharkiv, and towns around it left ten people dead, said regional governor Oleh Sinegubov. The Ukrainian army — whose counteroffensives in the south have reportedly made gains around Kherson — said Thursday that three cruise missiles hit the the city of Mykolaiv. The army also said two missiles were shot down near the coastal city of Odesa.
In the west, the city of Lviv has remained as among the least affected. A key route for refugees and international workers on their way to Poland, Lviv’s shops were open and its streets were bustling. At a crossing at the Ukraine-Poland border, the commercial shipping truck lane was crowded while regular travelers came in quickly.
Once through the border, Ukrainian soldiers on their way to training made their way to a bus where an army officer stood and checked off names from a list. The Polish end of the crossing was lined with hundreds of cars waiting to enter Ukraine that formed a miles-long queue.
It was a stark contrast to Ukraine’s east, where blacked-out ghost towns and the disquieting silence after air-raid sirens are most of what can be seen.
Bulos reported from Lviv and Kaleem from London.