Ukrainian forces have pulled back to the outskirts of the industrial city of Sievierodonetsk in the face of a fierce Russian assault, the regional governor says, in another big swing in momentum in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Russia has concentrated its troops and firepower on the small eastern city in recent weeks to secure the surrounding province on behalf of separatist proxies.
Ukraine has vowed to fight there for as long as possible, saying the battle could help shape the war’s future course.
After announcing a surprise counter-attack last week, the governor of the surrounding Luhansk region said on Wednesday afternoon that most of the city was again in Russian hands.
“…Our (forces) now again control only the outskirts of the city. But the fighting is still going on,” Serhiy Gaidai told the RBC-Ukraine media outlet.
Ukrainian forces still controlled all of the smaller twin city Lysychansk on the west bank of the Siverskyi Donets River but Russian forces were causing huge destruction to residential buildings there, he said in an online post.
Russian forces have 10 times more equipment than Ukrainian troops in some areas of Sievierodonetsk, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said.
Ukraine has urged its allies to speed up delivery of arms, saying the situation would become very difficult for the country if Russia broke through its lines in the east.
“The path to peace lies through heavy weapons,” Ukrainian negotiator and presidential advisor Mikhailo Podolyak said on Twitter, reiterating warnings that war could spread to the European Union if Russia was not defeated in Ukraine.
Reuters could not independently verify the situation on the ground in Sieverodonetsk.
Russia says it is engaged in a “special military operation” to disarm and “denazify” its neighbour.
Ukraine and its allies say Russia has launched an unprovoked war of aggression, killing thousands of civilians and flattening cities.
United Nations figures show more than seven million people have crossed the border from Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office said two people had been killed in the Luhansk region and four killed in the Kharkiv region in the past 24 hours, with others wounded.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, residents were cleaning up rubble from shelling the previous day.
Ukraine pushed Russian forces back last month from the city’s outskirts but Russia still strikes it sporadically.
CCTV footage showed the moment late on Tuesday when a suspected missile struck a shopping mall that included a supermarket, scattering debris and goods.
Footage filmed from a drone showed a gaping hole in the roof of the large building.
“The supporting pillars are completely destroyed,” said supermarket manager Svitlana Diulina, adding that nobody had been hurt in the attack.
Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest exporters of grain and the country’s allies accuse Russia of creating a risk of global famine by blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
Russia says foreign sanctions are responsible for food shortages.
Turkey has been trying to broker negotiations to open up the Ukrainian Black Sea ports.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and said a United Nations-backed deal on the ports was possible with further talks.
Lavrov said the Ukrainian ports could be opened but Ukraine would have to de-mine them first.
Ukraine dismissed Russia’s assurances as “empty words” and said Russian attacks on farmland and agricultural sites in the south were exacerbating the crisis.
Vitaliy Kim, governor of the Mykolaiv region, where Russian shelling destroyed the warehouses of one of Ukraine’s largest agricultural commodities terminals over the weekend, told Reuters Russia was trying to scare the world into meeting its terms.
The Kremlin earlier cited Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying sanctions must be lifted for Russian grain to reach markets.