© Reuters. A view shows apartment buildings damaged during the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in the city of Popasna in the Luhansk region, Ukraine May 27, 2022. REUTERS / Alexander Ermochenko
By Natalia Zinets and Conor Humphries
KYIV / POPASNA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces may have to withdraw from their last pocket in the Luhansk region to avoid being captured, a Ukrainian official said as Russian troops pushed eastward. which has changed the momentum of the three-month-old war.
A withdrawal could bring Russian President Vladimir Putin closer to his goal of fully conquering the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine. His troops have gained ground in the two areas collectively known as the Donbas, while blasting some cities into wastelands.
Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said Russian troops had entered Sievierodonetsk, the largest city of Donbas still held by Ukraine, after trying to capture Ukrainian forces there for several days. Gaidai said 90% of the buildings in the city were damaged.
“The Russians will not be able to conquer the Luhansk region in the coming days, as analysts have predicted,” Gaidai told the Telegram, referring to the area, including Sievierodonetsk and its twin city of Lysychansk, on the other side of the Siverskiy Donets River.
“We want enough strength and resources to defend ourselves. However, it is possible that in order not to be surrounded we will have to withdraw.”
Russia’s separatist agents said they controlled Lyman, a railway junction west of Sievierodonetsk. Ukraine said Russia had captured most of Lyman, but that its forces were blocking a move to Sloviansk, to the southwest.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine protected its country “as much as our current defense resources allow”. Ukraine’s military said it had repulsed eight attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk on Friday, destroying tanks and armored vehicles.
“If the occupying forces believe that Lyman and Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are mistaken. The Donbas will be Ukrainians,” Zelenskiy said in an address.
Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said that while Russian forces had launched direct attacks on built-up areas in Sievierodonetsk, they would likely fight to take ground in the city itself.
“Russian forces have performed poorly in operations in built-up urban areas throughout the war,” they said.
Russian troops advanced after piercing Ukrainian lines last week in the town of Popasna, south of Sievierodonetsk. Russian land forces have captured several villages northwest of Popasna, according to the British Ministry of Defense.
Popasna was reached by Reuters reporters on Russian-controlled territory on Thursday and lay in ruins. The inflated body of a dead man in combat uniform could be seen lying in a courtyard.
Resident Natalia Kovalenko had left the basement, where she had shelter in the wreck of her apartment, where the windows and balcony were blown away. She said a grenade hit the yard, killing two people and wounding eight.
“We’re tired of being so scared,” she said.
Russia’s eastern gains follow the withdrawal of its forces from approaches to the capital Kyiv and a Ukrainian counter-offensive that pushed its forces back from Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv.
Russian forces shelled parts of Kharkiv on Thursday for the first time in several days. Authorities said nine people were killed. The Kremlin denies targeting civilians in what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
In the southern part, where Moscow has conquered a piece of territory since the invasion on February 24, including the port of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials say Russia is aiming to impose permanent rule.
STRUGGLING TO LEAVE
In the Kherson region in the south, Russian forces were in the process of consolidating defense and shelling of Ukraine-controlled areas, the region’s Ukrainian governor, Hennadiy Laguta, told the media.
He said the humanitarian situation was critical in some areas and that people were finding it very difficult to leave.
Police said 31 people had been evacuated Friday from the Luhansk region, including 13 children.
On the diplomatic front, EU officials said an agreement could be reached before Sunday to ban supplies of Russian oil at sea, accounting for about 75% of the bloc’s supply, but not via pipeline, a compromise to win over Hungary and pave the way for new sanctions.
Zelenskiy has accused the EU of disagreeing with a ban on Russian energy, saying the bloc funded Russia’s war and delay “simply means more Ukrainians are being killed”.
In a phone call with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, Putin insisted that a global food crisis caused by the conflict could only be resolved if the West lifted sanctions.
Nehammer said Putin was ready to discuss a prisoner exchange with Ukraine, but added: “Whether he is really ready to negotiate is a complex issue.”
Both Russia and Ukraine are major grain exporters, and Russia’s blockade of ports has halted shipments, pushing up global prices. Russia accuses Ukraine of extracting the ports.
Russia justified its attack in part by ensuring that Ukraine does not join the US-led military alliance of NATO. But the war has pushed Sweden and Finland, both neutral throughout the Cold War, to apply to join NATO in one of the most significant changes in European security in decades.
The Nordic states’ bids have been stumbled upon by opposition from NATO member Turkey, which claims to house people affiliated with a militant group it considers a terrorist organization.
Swedish and Finnish diplomats did not get far during the negotiations in Turkey this week, two sources said. “It is not an easy process,” a Turkish official told Reuters.