Russian and Ukrainian troops traded blows in fierce close-quarter combat Sunday in an eastern Ukrainian city as Moscow’s soldiers, supported by intense shelling, attempted to gain a strategic foothold to conquer the region. Ukraine's leader made a rare front-line visit to the city of Kharkiv as he sought to assess the strength of the country's defenses.
Russian forces stormed Severodonetsk after trying unsuccessfully to encircle the strategic city, Ukrainian officials said, creating a situation that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called “indescribably difficult.” He said a relentless Russian artillery barrage had destroyed the town’s critical infrastructure and damaged 90% of its buildings.
“Capturing Severodonetsk is a principal task for the occupation force,” Zelensky said, adding that the Russians don’t care about casualties.
The mayor said the fighting had knocked out power and cellphone service and forced a humanitarian relief center to shut down because of the dangers.
The deteriorating conditions raised fears that Severodonetsk could become the next Mariupol, a city on the Sea of Azov that spent nearly three months under Russian siege before the last Ukrainian fighters surrendered.
Severodonetsk, about 90 miles south of the Russian border, has emerged in recent days as the epicenter of Moscow's quest to capture all of Ukraine's eastern industrial Donbas region. Russia also stepped up its efforts to capture the nearby city Lysychansk, where civilians rushed to escape persistent shelling.
The two eastern cities span the strategically important Seversky Donets River. They are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province, which makes up the Donbas together with the adjacent Donetsk region.
Zelensky, meanwhile, visited soldiers in Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city, where Ukrainian fighters pushed Russian forces back from nearby positions several weeks ago.
"I feel boundless pride in our defenders. Every day, risking their lives, they fight for Ukraine’s freedom,” Zelensky wrote on the Telegram messaging app after the visit.
Russia has kept up its bombardment of the northeastern city from afar, and explosions could be heard shortly after Zelensky's visit. Shelling and airstrikes have destroyed more than 2,000 apartment buildings in the city since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to the regional governor, Oleh Sinegubov.
In a video address later Sunday, Zelensky praised Kharkiv regional officials but said he had fired the regional head of Ukraine's Security Service, the SBU, for his poor performance. In the wider Kharkiv region, Russian troops still held about one-third of the territory, Zelensky said.
After failing to seize Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Russia is focused on occupying parts of the Donbas not already controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told French TF1 television Sunday that Moscow's "unconditional priority is the liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions," adding that Russia sees them as "independent states.”
He also suggested other regions of Ukraine should be able to establish close ties with Russia.
But in Luhansk, constant Russian shelling has created what provincial Gov. Serhiy Haidai called a “severe situation.”
“There are fatalities and wounded people,” he wrote on Telegram. On Saturday, he said, one civilian died and four were injured after a Russian shell hit a high-rise apartment building.
But some Luhansk supply and evacuation routes functioned Sunday, he said. He said the Russians had retreated “with losses” around a village near Severodonetsk but conducted airstrikes on another nearby river village.
Civilians who reached the eastern city of Pokrovsk, about 80 miles southwest of Lysychansk, said they held out as long as they could before fleeing the Russian advance.
Yanna Skakova choked back tears as she described leaving with her 18-month and 4-year-old sons while her husband stayed behind to take care of their house and animals. The family was among 18 people who lived in a basement for the last 2½ months until police told them Friday that it was time to evacuate.
“None of us wanted to leave our native city,” she said. “But for the sake of these small children, we decided to leave.”
Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said there was fighting at the city’s bus station Saturday. Residents risked exposure to shelling to get water from a half-dozen wells, and there was no electricity or cellphone service, Striuk said.
Striuk has estimated that 1,500 civilians in the city, which had a prewar population of around 100,000, have died in Russian attacks since the beginning of the war, as well as from a lack of medicine and diseases that couldn’t be treated.
The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank based in Washington, questioned the Kremlin’s strategy of assembling a huge military effort to take Severodonetsk, saying it was proving costly for Russia and would bring few returns.
“When the [battle] ends, regardless of which side holds the city, the Russian offensive at the operational and strategic levels will likely have culminated, giving Ukraine the chance to restart its operational-level counteroffensives to push Russian forces back,” the institute said in an assessment published late Saturday.
There are concerns that Severodonetsk could become the next Mariupol.
An aide to Mariupol’s Ukrainian mayor said Sunday that after Russia's forces gained complete control of Mariupol, they piled bodies in a supermarket in the occupied city.
The aide, Petro Andryushchenko, posted a photo on the Telegram messaging app of what he described as a “corpse dump.” It showed bodies stacked alongside closed supermarket counters.
It was not immediately possible to verify his account or the authenticity of the photo, which Andryushchenko described as recent.
“Here the Russians bring the bodies of the dead, which were washed out of their graves during attempts to restore the water supply, and partially exhumed. They just dump them like garbage,” he wrote.
In Lysychansk, Luhansk Gov. Haidai said constant shelling created a “severe” situation. "There are fatalities and wounded people,” he wrote on Telegram, without elaborating.
On Saturday, he said, one civilian died and four were injured after a Russian shell hit a high-rise apartment building.
The Ukrainian military said Sunday that Russian forces also were trying to strengthen their positions around Lyman, a small city that serves as a key rail hub in the Donetsk region.
Moscow claimed Saturday to have taken Lyman, but Ukrainian authorities said their fighters remained engaged in combat in parts of the city.
“The enemy is reinforcing its units,” the Ukrainian armed forces’ general staff said in an operational update. “It is trying to gain a foothold in the area.”
The Ukrainian army said that heavy fighting was ongoing around Donetsk, the provincial capital.
More widely, Russia launched renewed airstrikes overnight on Ukraine’s northern Kharkiv and Sumy regions, and in central Ukraine, Ukrainian state agencies said.
The State Emergency Service of Ukraine said Sunday morning that Russian shelling caused fires around Kharkiv.
The Kharkiv regional prosecutors’ office said a Russian shell broke through the room of a house and wounded a 50-year-old man and a 62-year-old woman early Sunday in the town of Zolochiv, around 20 miles northwest of Kharkiv.
The Ukrainian Border Guard Service said border areas in the Sumy region, east of Kharkiv, were hit with six unguided missiles. The agency did not mention reports of any casualties.
Russia claimed its forces destroyed an important Ukrainian ammunition depot in the eastern city of Kryvyi Rih, Zelensky’s hometown. High-precision missiles struck a depot “within one of the industrial enterprises” in the city, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
Ukrainian emergency services confirmed that “an industrial plant” in Kryvyi Rih caught fire after being struck by two Russian rockets and sustaining “significant damage.” Officials did not say whether it was being used as a military depot.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.