Russia has launched a full-scale ground offensive to take control of Ukraine’s east, according to authorities in Kyiv, with explosions reported all along the front lines and one local official describing the situation as “hell” amid “constant fighting”.
The “Battle for Donbas” began on Monday, according to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with a “very large part of the entire Russian army now focused on this offensive”.
The Donbas is Ukraine’s primarily Russian-speaking industrial heartland in the east, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for the past eight years. Pro-Russian leaders there have declared two independent republics, which Russia recognised before launching its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
In recent weeks, the Kremlin declared the capture of the Donbas its main goal of the war after its attempt to storm Kyiv failed. After withdrawing from the capital, Russia began regrouping and reinforcing its ground troops in the east for an all-out offensive.
Zelenskyy, in a video address, pledged to fight back, saying: “No matter how many Russian troops are driven there, we will fight. We will defend ourselves. We will do it every day.”
The president’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, called the offensive “the second phase of the war” and assured Ukrainians their forces could hold off the attack.
“Believe in our army, it is very strong,” he said.
After the offensive got under way, the Ukrainian military reported increased assaults in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions – both of which are part of the Donbas – as well as in the area of Zaporizhzhia.
“This morning, almost along the whole front line of the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions, the occupiers attempted to break through our defences,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, was quoted as telling Ukrainian media on Monday.
“Fortunately, our military is holding out. They passed through only two cities. This is Kreminna and another small town.”
He added: “We are not giving up any of our territories.”
A Ukrainian military official reported “constant fighting” in several cities in Luhansk and said street battles had begun in Kreminna, making evacuation impossible.
“It’s hell. The offensive has begun, the one we’ve been talking about for weeks,” Serhiy Hadai, the regional military administrator for Luhansk, wrote on Facebook. “There’s constant fighting in Rubizhne and Popasna, fighting in other peaceful cities.”
In Kreminna, heavy artillery fire set seven residential buildings on fire and targeted the sports complex where the nation’s Olympic team trains, he said, telling Ukrainian television later that Russians took control of the city after “levelling everything to the ground”.
“The Russian army has already entered there, with a huge amount of military hardware … Our defenders have retreated to new positions,” he added.
Ukrainian media also reported a series of explosions, some powerful, along the front line in the Donetsk region, with shelling taking place in Marinka, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. Ukrainian local officials and local media said additional explosions were heard in Kharkiv in the northeast of Ukraine, Mykolaiv in the south and Zaporizhzhia in the southeast.
Al Jazeera was not immediately able to verify the reports.
A senior US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessments of the war, said there were now 76 Russian combat units, known as battalion tactical groups, in eastern and southern Ukraine, up from 65 last week.
That could translate to about 50,000 to 60,000 troops, based on what the Pentagon said at the start of the war was the typical unit strength of 700 to 800 soldiers, but the numbers are difficult to pinpoint at this stage in the fighting.
The official also said that four US cargo flights arrived in Europe on Sunday with an initial delivery of weapons and other materials for Ukraine as part of an $800m package announced by Washington last week. Also, training of Ukrainian personnel on US 155 mm howitzers is set to begin in the next few days.
The capture of the besieged southern port city of Mariupol is seen as key to the Russian offensive, the official said, and not just because it would deprive Ukraine of a vital port and complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, seized from Ukraine in 2014.
If Russian forces succeed in taking complete control of Mariupol, that could free up nearly a dozen battalion tactical groups for use elsewhere in the Donbas, the official said.
Russia has claimed control of the strategic city, but Ukrainian officials say it is still contested, with hundreds of Ukrainian fighters holed up in the Azovstal steel plant holding out against the invading troops.
Mariupol city council said at least 1,000 civilians were also hiding in underground shelters beneath the vast steelworks.
Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard, said in a video message that Russia had begun dropping bunker-buster bombs on the plant.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, Russian forces continued shelling and missile attacks, killing at least three in Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv and a further seven in the far western city of Lviv.
The attack on Lviv hit three military infrastructure facilities and an auto shop, according to the region’s governor, Maksym Kozytskyy.
He said the wounded included a child.
Lviv, the biggest city and a central transportation hub in western Ukraine, is about 80km (50 miles) from Poland, a NATO member. It has seen only sporadic attacks during almost two months of war and has become a haven for civilians fleeing the fighting in other parts of the country.
It has also become a crucial gateway for NATO-supplied weapons.
Russia has strongly complained about the increasing flow of Western weapons to Ukraine and warned that such aid could have consequences. On Russian state media, some anchors have charged that the supplies amount to direct Western engagement in the fight against Russia.
The attacks on Monday also damaged a Lviv hotel sheltering displaced Ukrainians.
“The nightmare of war has caught up with us even in Lviv,” said Lyudmila Turchak, who fled with two children from Kharkiv.
“There is no longer anywhere in Ukraine where we can feel safe.”