Russian troops fired on a river bank on Friday, which seemed to be a major assault to seize the last Ukrainian-held territory in the province it claims on behalf of the separatists.
Ukrainian officials say Russian troops have carried out massive artillery shelling of Sevrodonetsk, one of the last Ukrainian bastions in Luhansk, one of the two southeastern regions that Moscow and its proxies declare independent states.
The city and its twin Lyshchensk on the opposite bank of the Seversky Donets River form the eastern part of the Ukrainian pocket, which Russia has been trying to capture since mid-April after failing to capture the capital Kyiv.
“The Russian army has begun a very intensive destruction of the city of Sevrodanetsk, the intensity of shelling has doubled, shelling residential neighborhoods, destroying house after house,” – said in his Telegram-channel Governor of Lugansk region Sergei Gaidai.
“We do not know how many people died, because it is simply impossible to pass and see each apartment,” he said.
The General Staff of Ukraine said it had pushed back the attack on Seradodanetsk, part of which he called major Russian operations on the front line.
Despite losing ground elsewhere in recent weeks, Russian troops have advanced on the Luhansk front, which some military analysts see as the main impetus for reduced military targets to seize more territory claimed by pro-Russian insurgents.
“This will be crucial in the next few weeks of the conflict,” said Mathieu Bouleg, an expert at Chatham House think tank in London. “And it depends on how effective they are in the conquest of Severodonetsk and the surrounding lands.”
In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the “liberation of the People’s Republic of Belarus” would end soon.
In a night address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the conditions in the Donbas, which includes Luhansk and the neighboring Donetsk region, “hell” and said that the region was “completely destroyed” by Russia.
The capture of Luhansk and Donetsk would allow Moscow to claim victory after it announced last month that it was now its goal. She took a major step towards that goal this week when Ukraine responded to its garrison in the main port of Donbass, Mariupol, after a nearly three-month siege.
Russia’s Shoigu said about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in the past four days.
Kyiv has not confirmed how many fighters surrendered, but Britain has given the first official Western confirmation that major Ukrainian forces have laid down weapons at the plant, estimating them at around 1700. It is believed that an unknown number is still inside, it said.
In the video, the commander of the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian unit that defended the plant, confirmed that the order to stop fighting was being carried out, and said that all civilians and wounded fighters had now left.
Commander Denis Prokopenko did not provide details about the fate of other fighters, but said that the process of removing the dead from underground tunnels and bunkers is underway.
“I hope that in the near future relatives and Ukraine will be able to proudly bury their soldiers,” – said Prokopenko.
The Red Cross says it has registered hundreds of Ukrainians who have been taken prisoner as prisoners of war, but does not give exact figures.
Kyiv says it wants to organize an exchange of prisoners for Azovstal defenders, whom it calls heroes. Moscow says they will be treated humanely, but cites Russian politicians as saying some of them should be convicted of crimes and even executed.
FOOD AS A CLAMP
Last week, Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership, the biggest coup in European security in decades, although Turkey has said it will block the move, accusing Nordic countries of harboring Kurdish militants.
After weeks of threats of revenge, Putin seems to have largely sunk, saying this week that NATO membership for Finland and Sweden poses no threat as such unless the alliance sends new weapons or troops. However, Defense Minister Shoigu said on Friday that Moscow plans to step up its forces nearby in response to what he called new threats.
In recent weeks, Russian troops in Ukraine have been driven out of the area around Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, the fastest retreat since they were driven out of the north and the area around Kyiv in late March.
But they still control much of the south and east, and the end of fighting in Mariupol means the territory is now largely intact. Ukraine says Russia is trying to impose its own administration and may try to annex the occupied territory, possibly by fake votes.
However, military analysts say Russia is using its firepower against an underestimated enemy, and may not have enough time to reach its goal of capturing the entire Donbass.
“Nothing has been determined yet. But this will be the very next phase … before the Kremlin has to freeze positions on the ground, stop advancing and move to positional warfare, ”said Bouleg, an expert at Chatham House.
As a sign that Russia is seeking to increase its military efforts, a parliament in Moscow has said it will consider a bill that would allow Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 to enlist in the military. Putin did not declare his “special military operation” a war that would facilitate the mobilization of reservists and conscripts.