Russian forces have launched fresh assaults on towns in eastern Ukraine, with the city of Sievierodonetsk increasingly in danger of being totally encircled.
The head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, said delays in arrival of western arms to the frontline had left Kyiv “catastrophically short of heavy weapons”.
The governor of Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, said the area was now without gas supplies and had limited water and electricity after the last gas supply station was hit.
Haidai added that Russian forces were attempting to “completely destroy” the city of Sievierodonetsk in an attempt to conquer the Donbas region, near Russia’s border.
“They are simply erasing Sievierodonetsk from the face of the Earth,” Haidai said on his Telegram channel.
“At the moment, with the support of artillery, the Russian occupiers are attacking Sievierodonetsk,” Haidai added.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the situation in Donbas was “extremely difficult”, with the Russian army bringing its full force to bear. Footage from recent days from frontline areas, posted on social media, has depicted a constant barrage of artillery and rocket fire raining down on key roads and Ukrainian positions.
Recent video footage posted by AFP photographer Aris Messinis in Donbas showed shells hitting close to a road in the country’s east and the constant sound of incoming artillery fire.
— Aris Messinis (@ArisMessinis) May 23, 2022
After failing to seize Kyiv or Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, Russia is trying to take the rest of the separatist-claimed Donbas’s two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, and trap Ukrainian forces in a pocket on the main eastern front.
In the easternmost part of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, the city of Sievierodonetsk on the east bank of the Siverskyi Donets River and its twin Lysychansk, on the west bank, have become a pivotal battlefield as Russian forces have advanced from three directions to encircle them.
Assessment of Russian operations by western analysts suggests that rather than encircle Ukrainian forces in one large and all-encompassing effort, Russia is attempting to carve up Ukrainian-held territory into several small encirclements to the same effect.
The US-based thinktank the Institute for the Study of War said in its 24 May update that Russian troops “are instead attempting to secure smaller encirclements and focus on Sievierodonetsk”, adding that Ukrainian forces were also probably conducting a controlled withdrawal south-west of the town of Popasna to protect Ukrainian supply lines against Russian offensives.
Russia appears to have deployed higher quality troops from a so-called operational manoeuvre group to spearhead the operation around Sievierdonestsk, with some reports suggesting that Russian aircraft were flying several hundred sorties a day in support of the attack.
Russian forces also appear to be benefiting from better supply lines in the Luhansk region with Ukrainian officials appealing for more western heavy weapons – including multiple launch rocket systems – for their outgunned defenders.
In the city of Sloviansk west of Donbas, many residents took advantage of what Ukraine said was a break in the Russian assault to leave. “My house was bombed, I have nothing,” said Vera Safronova, seated in a train carriage among the evacuees.
Along with the eastern Donbas region, Moscow is also targeting southern Ukraine and has blockaded ships that would normally export Ukrainian grain and sunflower oil through the Black Sea, pushing up prices globally and threatening lives.
Russia, which has blamed Ukraine and the west for the food crisis, said it was ready to provide a humanitarian corridor for vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine but said western sanctions would need to be lifted in return.
Three months into the invasion, Russia still has only limited gains to show for its worst military losses in decades, while much of Ukraine has suffered devastation as Moscow stepped up artillery strikes to compensate for its slow progress.
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said it was deliberately advancing slowly in what it calls its “special operation” to avoid civilian casualties, comments Zelenskiy dismissed as “absolutely unreal”.
“We will continue the special military operation until all the objectives have been achieved,” Shoigu told the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance of former Soviet states. The secretary of Russia’s security council, Nikolai Patrushev, also said Moscow’s offensive would last as long as necessary.
“We are not rushing to meet deadlines,” he said.