The battle for two key cities in eastern Ukraine is edging towards “a fearsome climax”, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has said, as the war in Ukraine is set to enter its fourth month on Friday.
Russia’s efforts to capture Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk – the two remaining cities under Ukrainian control in Luhansk – have turned into a bloody war of attrition, with both sides inflicting heavy casualties. Moscow, over the last two weeks, has managed to make steady gains.
“The fighting is entering a sort of fearsome climax”, said Oleksiy Arestovych in an interview late on Wednesday.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, one of two in the eastern Donbas, said on Thursday morning that Russian forces have been “successful” in their advances. He added that enemy forces had captured Loskutivka, a settlement to the south of Lysychansk, which threatened to isolate Ukrainian troops.
“In order to avoid encirclement, our command could order that the troops retreat to new positions,” Haidai said in a post on Telegram. Russian state news agency TASS cited Russian-backed separatists saying Lysychansk was now surrounded and cut off from supplies after Russia captured a road linking the city to Ukrainian-held territories.
Meanwhile, Russia is now believed to control all of Sievierodonetsk with the exception of the Azot chemical plant. Hundreds of civilians and Ukrainian forces are trapped there. Footage posted on social media on Thursday showed heavy fighting outside the industrial area where the plant is located.
Relentless Russian shelling of the Azot plant echoes the earlier bloody siege of the Azovstal steelworks in the southern port of Mariupol, where hundreds of fighters and civilians had taken shelter.
Commenting on Russia’s advances in the east, Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address that Russia’s goal there was to “destroy the whole Donbas step by step.”
Elsewhere in the country, local officials said Russia continued to pound their cities with rockets.
In the southern city of Mykolaiv, the local mayor said that Russian missiles fired a day earlier had killed at least one person and damaged buildings, including a school.
The brunt of Russia’s shelling outside the Donbas has fallen on Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, located just across the Russian border. The war-torn city has seen some of the heaviest bombardments since the start of the war after experiencing a relative lull– which prompted some locals to return to their homes.
There are now concerns among the Ukrainian military that Moscow is mounting a new attack on Kharkiv, despite a successful counter-offensive that pushed Russian troops away from its outskirts earlier this month.
Andrii Mogyla, a member of Ukraine’s armed forces, told CNN on Wednesday that Russia could launch a new assault on the city as early as this week.
While worries grow in Ukraine over Russia’s advances in the east and north, the country will also likely receive a morale boost on Thursday as leaders of the European Union are expected to formally accept Ukraine as a candidate to join the bloc in a symbolic show of western support.
Ukraine’s military will also welcome the announcement made by Oleksii Reznikov, the country’s defence minister, who on Thursday announced that the much-requested HIMARS long-range rocket systems have started to arrive from the US.
“HIMARS have arrived to Ukraine. Thank you to my colleague and friend, @SecDef Lloyd J. Austin III, for these powerful tools! Summer will be hot for Russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them,” the minister said on Twitter.
After weeks of complaints by Kyiv that the west was dragging its feet with the shipment of heavy weapons, there are now growing signs that arms arriving from abroad are starting to influence the fighting. Ukraine earlier this week destroyed a Russian tugboat near Snake Island using a Harpoon missile, and has also conducted its first attack on a Russian oil rig in the Black Sea.
Ukraine has repeatedly indicated that its aims of launching a fresh counter-offensive to win back territory it has lost in the south of the country, including the Kherson region – where it has been achieving some gains recently – hinges on the willingness of the west to supply heavy weapons.
“We must free our land and achieve victory, but more quickly, a lot more quickly,” Zelenskyy said in a video address released early on Thursday.
“What is quickly needed is parity on the battlefield in order to halt this diabolical armada and push it beyond Ukraine’s borders.”