Russian-backed separatists claimed to have captured a rail hub in eastern Ukraine as Moscow forces tried to gain more ground on Friday by shelling another Ukrainian-held area where authorities say 1,500 people have died since the start of the war.
While the Russian offensive in Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region shows gradual progress, Ukrainian officials have described the battle as serious and renewed their calls for more sophisticated weapons supplied by the West. Without this, the foreign minister warned, Ukrainian forces will not be able to stop Russia’s eastward advance.
Some European leaders have sought dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin to end a war – now in its 93rd day – with global economic repercussions, while Britain’s foreign secretary has sought to rally the continued Western support for Ukraine.
“There should be no talk of a ceasefire or appeasement of Putin. We have to make sure that Ukraine wins. And that Russia withdraws and that we never see this kind of Russian aggression again,” said British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
But east of Ukraine, Russia has the upper hand. Friday’s fighting focused on two key cities: Severodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk. These are the last areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk, one of the two provinces that make up the Donbass and where Moscow-backed separatists have controlled certain territories for eight years.
“Massive artillery bombardment does not stop, day and night,” Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk told The Associated Press. “The city is systematically destroyed – 90% of the buildings in the city are damaged.”
At least 1,500 people have died in Severodonetsk because of the war since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, he said.
There are about 12,000 to 13,000 people left in the city, down from a pre-war population of around 100,000, he said. Those who remain are crammed into shelters, largely cut off from the rest of Ukraine.
Volunteers hoped to evacuate around 100 people on Friday from a small town just south of Severodonetsk. It was a laborious process: many evacuees from Bakhmut were elderly or infirm and had to be carried out of apartment buildings on soft stretchers and wheelchairs.
Minibuses and vans drove through the city, picking up dozens for the first leg of a long journey west by car or train.
“Bakhmut is a high-risk area at the moment,” said Mark Poppert, an American volunteer working with British charity RefugEase. “We try to get as many people out as possible.”
The Russians claim the city of Donetsk
In Donetsk, the other Donbass province, Russian-backed rebels said on Friday they had taken control of Lyman, a major rail hub north of two other key towns still under Ukrainian control.
“We lost Lyman,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich admitted Thursday evening. However, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reported on Friday that its soldiers countered Russian attempts to push them out of the city altogether.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said Russian forces took advantage of delays in Western arms deliveries to step up their offensive in the east, bringing in up to a dozen additional battalion battle groups.
Nothing is foreign29:07Is eastern Ukraine turning against Russia?
However, throwing so much muscle on the offensive could backfire by seriously depleting the Russian arsenal. Echoing a UK MoD assessment, Zhdanov said Russia was deploying 50-year-old T-62 tanks, “meaning the world’s second army is running out of modernized equipment.”
Mykola Sunhurovskyi, an analyst at the Razumkov Center in Kyiv, said that going forward, “it is in Putin’s interest to solidify the situation that has developed today on the front line, cutting Ukraine what there is still strength for, and securing that line of contact”. as a position in (possible) negotiations.”
As Ukraine’s hopes of stopping the Russian advance faded, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pleaded with Western nations: “We need heavy weapons. … Without artillery, without systems multiple rocket launchers, we won’t be able to repel them.”
In his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had harsh words for the European Union, which has not agreed to a sixth round of sanctions including an embargo on Russian oil. Hungary, one of Moscow’s closest allies in the EU, is obstructing the deal.
“Every day of delay, weakness, various arguments or proposals to ‘appease’ the aggressor at the expense of the victim (results) in new Ukrainians being killed,” he said. “And new threats to everyone on our continent.”
Zelensky said Russia’s offensive in the Donbass could leave its communities in ashes, and he accused Moscow of an “obvious policy of genocide” through mass deportations and killings of civilians.
On Thursday, the Russian shelling of Kharkiv, a northeastern city that came under attack as Ukrainian forces blocked invading troops from entering, killed nine people, including a father and his 5-month-old baby, said President.
Associated Press reporters saw the bodies of at least two dead and four wounded men at a central subway station, where the victims were taken as shelling continued outside.
To the north, neighboring Belarus announced on Friday that it was sending troops to the Ukrainian border, raising concerns within the Ukrainian military command. Russia used Belarus as a transit ground before invading Ukraine.