Ukrainian forces were holding just a fifth of the eastern city of Severodonetsk on Wednesday, but there was still hope that they could prevent Russia from taking full control, the head of the city administration has said.
Russian forces control 60 percent of the city and Ukraine holds 20 percent while the rest has become “no-man’s land”, said Oleksandr Stryuk, the Ukrainian head of the city administration.
“The 20 percent is being fiercely defended by our armed forces,” Stryuk told the news agency Reuters. “Our troops are holding defensive lines. Attempts are being made to drive out the Russian troops.”
“We have hope that despite everything we will free the city and not allow it to be completely occupied,” he said.
Earlier, Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces were pounding infrastructure in eastern and southern regions including Severodonetsk.
Russian forces entered the eastern Ukrainian city, the largest still held by Kyiv in the Luhansk region, late last week after weeks of shelling.
If Russia captures the city and its smaller twin Lysychansk on the higher west bank of the Siverskyi Donets river, it would hold all of Luhansk, one of two provinces in the eastern Donbas region that Moscow claims on behalf of separatists and a key war aim of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Stryuk said that 12,000 to 13,000 people remain in the city but that all essential infrastructure had been destroyed and that access to the city to deliver food or other aid was impossible.
“They are living in conditions of constant shelling, and now street battles are going on, too, which has heightened the danger to the civilian population.”
Severodonetsk, a Soviet-era city, houses a large chemical factory. According to Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai, a Russian air strike hit the plant on Tuesday, blowing up a tank of toxic nitric acid and releasing a plume of pink smoke.
Russia “attacked the Azot factory from a plane, resulting in the release of toxic substances”, Gaidai said, urging residents to remain inside.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia’s strikes in the area, “including blind air bombing, are just crazy”.
The leader of the pro-Moscow self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, told TASS news agency that Russian proxies had advanced slower than expected to safeguard city infrastructure and “exercise caution around its chemical factories”.
West of Severodonetsk, in the city of Sloviansk, the AFP news agency reported three people died and six others were wounded in a rocket attack that destroyed buildings. At least one person died and two others were injured in Soledar, between Sloviansk and Severodonetsk, AFP reported.
Meanwhile, the United States said it would supply advanced rockets to Kyiv to help force Moscow to negotiate an end to the war.
US President Joe Biden announced the supply of precision rocket systems and munitions that could strike at long-range Russian targets, part of a $700m weapons package expected to be unveiled on Wednesday.
“We have moved quickly to send Ukraine a significant amount of weaponry and ammunition so it can fight on the battlefield and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table,” Biden wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times.
A senior Biden administration official said the new supplies – which come on top of billions of dollars worth of equipment such as drones and anti-aircraft missiles – included the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which Kyiv has said is “crucial” to counter Russian missile attacks.
Addressing concerns that weapons such as HIMARS could draw the US into direct conflict, Jonathan Finer, deputy White House national security adviser, said Washington had asked Ukraine for assurances the missiles would not strike inside Russia.
Russia, however, warned of an increased risk of direct confrontation with the US.
“We believe that the United States is purposefully and diligently adding fuel to the fire,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, adding that such supplies would not encourage Ukraine’s leadership to resume stalled peace talks.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Wednesday that Berlin would supply Kyiv with its IRIS-T medium-range surface-to-air defence system.
Zelenskyy has called for more weapons while lambasting the European Union, which agreed on Monday to cut imports of Russian oil, for not sanctioning energy from Russia sooner.
Russia’s invasion of its neighbour is also threatening a global food crisis, with Ukraine’s huge grain harvest effectively taken off the world market.
Pope Francis appealed on Wednesday for all blockades on wheat exports from Ukraine to be lifted, saying grain should not be used as a “weapon of war”.
Putin launched what he calls a “special military operation” on February 24 to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. Ukraine and its Western allies call this a baseless pretext for a war of aggression.