By Natalia Zinets and Conor Humphries
KYIV/POPASNA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces may have to withdraw from their last pocket in the Luhansk region to avoid capture, a Ukrainian official said, as Russian troops press for an eastward advance that changed the momentum of the three-month war.
A withdrawal could bring Russian President Vladimir Putin closer to his goal of capturing all of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine. His troops gained ground in the two regions known as Donbass while blowing up some wasteland towns.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said Russian troops entered Sievierodonetsk, the largest city in Donbass still held by Ukraine, after trying to trap Ukrainian forces there for days. Gaidai said 90% of buildings in the city were damaged.
“The Russians will not be able to capture the Lugansk region in the next few days as analysts predicted,” Gaidai said on Telegram, referring to Sievierodonetsk and its twin city Lysychansk across the border. Siverskiy Donets river.
“We will have enough strength and resources to defend ourselves. However, it is possible that, in order not to be surrounded, we will have to retreat.”
Russian separatist proxies said they now control Lyman, a rail hub west of Sievierodonetsk. Ukraine said Russia had captured most of Lyman but its forces were blocking an advance towards Sloviansk in the southwest.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine was protecting its territory “as much as our current defense resources allow”. Ukraine’s military said it repelled eight attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk on Friday, destroying tanks and armored vehicles.
“If the occupiers think that Lyman and Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbass will be Ukrainian,” Zelenskiy said in a speech.
“AT GREAT COST”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Bloomberg UK that Putin “at great cost to himself and to the Russian military, continues to gnaw at the soil of Donbass”.
Russian troops advanced after breaking through Ukrainian lines last week in the town of Popasna, south of Sievierodonetsk. Russian ground forces have captured several villages northwest of Popasna, the British Ministry of Defense said.
Reached Thursday by Reuters reporters in Russian-held territory, Popasna was in ruins. The swollen body of a dead man in combat uniform could be seen lying in a yard.
Resident Natalia Kovalenko had left the cellar where she had taken refuge in the wreckage of her apartment, its windows and balcony blown out. She said a shell hit the yard, killing two people and injuring eight.
“We are tired of being so scared,” she said.
Russia’s gains in the east follow the withdrawal of its forces from the approaches to the capital, Kyiv, and a Ukrainian counter-offensive that pushed its forces back from Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv. Ukrainian forces were unable to attack Russian supply lines to Donbass.
Russian forces shelled parts of Kharkiv on Thursday for the first time in days. Authorities said nine people were killed. The Kremlin denies targeting civilians in what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
In the south, where Moscow has seized a swath of territory since the Feb. 24 invasion, including the port of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials say Russia aims to impose permanent rule.
FIGHT TO LEAVE
In the Kherson region, Russian forces are strengthening defenses and shelling Ukrainian-controlled areas, the region’s Ukrainian governor, Hennadiy Laguta, told media.
He said the humanitarian situation was critical in some areas and people were finding it very difficult to leave.
On the diplomatic front, European Union officials said a deal could be reached by Sunday to ban shipments of Russian oil by sea, accounting for around 75% of the bloc’s supply, but not by sea. pipeline, a compromise to reach Hungary and pave the way. for new penalties.
Zelenskiy accused the EU of dithering on a Russian energy ban, saying the bloc was funding Russia’s war and the delay “just means more Ukrainians are being killed”.
In a phone call with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, Putin stuck to his line that a global food crisis caused by the conflict can only be solved if the West lifts sanctions.
Nehammer, who visited Russia in April, said Putin had said he was ready to discuss a prisoner swap with Ukraine, but he said: “If he is really ready to negotiate, it is a complex question”.
Russia and Ukraine are major grain exporters, and Russia’s blockade of ports has halted shipments, pushing up world prices. Russia accuses Ukraine of mining ports.
Russia has justified its assault in part to ensure Ukraine does not join the US-led NATO military alliance. But the war has prompted Sweden and Finland, which were both neutral throughout the Cold War, to apply to join NATO in one of the most significant changes to European security in decades.
Applications from Nordic states have been trampled on by opposition from NATO member Turkey, which claims to be harboring people linked to a militant group it considers a terrorist organization.
Swedish and Finnish diplomats made little progress in talks in Turkey this week, two sources said. “It’s not an easy process,” a Turkish official told Reuters.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Conor Humphries and Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv, Vitaliy Hnidyi in Kharkiv and Reuters reporters in Popasna; Writing by Rami Ayyub and Robert Birsel; Editing by Grant McCool and William Mallard)