By Natalia Zinets and Max Hunder
KYIV (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces may have to withdraw from their last pocket in the Luhansk region to avoid capture, a Ukrainian official said, as Russian troops press for an eastward advance that has altered the situation. momentum of the three-month-old child. war.
A withdrawal could bring Russian President Vladimir Putin closer to his goal of capturing all of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine. His troops gained ground in the two regions known as Donbass while blowing up some wasteland towns.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said Russian troops had entered Sievierodonetsk, the largest city in Donbass still held by Ukraine, after trying to trap Ukrainian forces there for days, while adding that Russian forces would not be able to capture the Lugansk region “as analysts predicted”.
“We will have enough strength and resources to defend ourselves. However, it is possible that in order not to be surrounded, we will have to retreat,” Gaidai said on Telegram.
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Gaidai said 90% of buildings in Sievierodonetsk were damaged and 14 skyscrapers were destroyed in the latest bombardment.
Speaking to Ukrainian TV, Gaidai said there were some 10,000 Russian troops based in the area and they were “trying to make gains in every possible direction”.
He said several dozen medical staff remained in Sievierodonetsk but were having difficulty getting to hospitals because of the shelling.
Reuters could not independently verify the information.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine was protecting its territory “as much as our current defense resources allow”. Ukraine’s military said it repelled eight attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk on Friday, destroying tanks and armored vehicles.
“If the occupiers think that Lyman and Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbass will be Ukrainian,” Zelenskiy said in a speech.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said on Saturday that Ukrainian forces had repelled eight assaults in Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the past 24 hours. Russia’s attacks included artillery assaults in the Sievierodonetsk region “unsuccessfully”, he said.
Analysts at the Institute for the Study of Warfare, a Washington-based think tank, said if Russian forces had begun direct assaults on built-up areas in Sievierodonetsk, they would likely struggle to gain ground. in the city itself.
“Russian forces performed poorly in built-up urban terrain operations throughout the war,” they said.
Russian troops advanced after breaking through Ukrainian lines last week in the town of Popasna, south of Sievierodonetsk. Russian ground forces have captured several villages northwest of Popasna, the British Ministry of Defense said.
Reached Thursday by Reuters reporters in Russian-held territory, Popasna was in ruins. The swollen body of a dead man in combat uniform could be seen lying in a yard.
Resident Natalia Kovalenko had left the cellar where she had taken refuge in the wreckage of her apartment, its windows and balcony blown out. She said a shell hit the yard, killing two people and injuring eight.
“We are tired of being so scared,” she said.
Russia’s gains in the east follow the withdrawal of its forces from the approaches to the capital, Kyiv, and a Ukrainian counter-offensive that pushed its forces back from Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv.
Russian forces shelled neighborhoods in Kharkiv on Thursday for the first time in days, killing nine people, authorities said. The Kremlin denies targeting civilians in what it calls its “special military operation”.
The Ukrainian General Staff said on Saturday that there had been no new attack on the city, but that there had been multiple Russian strikes on nearby communities and infrastructure.
In the south, where Moscow has seized a swath of territory since the Feb. 24 invasion, including the port of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials say Russia aims to impose permanent rule.
In the Kherson region to the south, Russian forces are strengthening defenses and shelling Ukrainian-held areas, the region’s Ukrainian governor told media. Another official said Russian forces shelled the town of Zelenodolsk.
On the diplomatic front, European Union officials said a deal could be reached by Sunday to ban shipments of Russian oil by sea, accounting for around 75% of the bloc’s supply, but not by sea. pipeline, a compromise to reach Hungary and pave the way. for new penalties.
Zelenskiy accused the EU of dithering on a Russian energy ban, saying the bloc was funding Russia’s war and the delay “just means more Ukrainians are being killed”.
In a phone call with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, Putin stuck to his line that a global food crisis caused by the conflict can only be solved if the West lifts sanctions.
Nehammer said Putin had said he was ready to discuss a prisoner swap with Ukraine, but added: “Whether he is really ready to negotiate is a complex issue.”
Russia and Ukraine are major grain exporters, and Russia’s blockade of ports has halted shipments, pushing up world prices. Russia accuses Ukraine of mining ports.
Russia has justified its assault in part to ensure Ukraine does not join the US-led NATO military alliance. But the war has prompted Sweden and Finland, both neutral throughout the Cold War, to apply to join NATO in one of the most significant changes to European security in decades.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Conor Humphries, Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv, Vitaliy Hnidyi in Kharkiv and Reuters reporters in Popasna; Writing by Rami Ayyub and Robert Birsel; Editing by Grant McCool and William Mallard)
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