KYIV / SLOVYANSK – Russian forces on Tuesday launched a full-scale offensive to encircle Ukrainian forces in a riverine town in eastern Ukraine, a battle that could determine the success or failure of a major Moscow operation in the past.
Just three months after President Vladimir Putin instructed Russian forces in Ukraine, authorities in his second-largest city, Kharkiv, have reopened the underground metro, where thousands of civilians have sought refuge for months under relentless bombardment.
The move was a testament to Ukraine’s biggest military success in recent weeks: pushing Russian forces out of Kharkiv’s artillery range, as they did in March from the capital, Kyiv.
But the decisive battles of the last phase of the war are still going on further south, where Moscow is trying to occupy the Donbass region of the two eastern provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, and keep Ukrainian forces in one pocket on the main eastern front.
The eastern part of the Ukrainian-occupied Donbass Pocket, the town of Siviarodonetsk on the east bank of the Sivarsky Donets River, and its twin Lisichansk on the west bank, have become major battlefields, with Russian forces advancing in three directions to encircle them. .
Sergei Gaidai, the governor of Luhansk province, said “the enemy has concentrated its efforts to launch an offensive to encircle Lisichansk and Siviarodonetsk,” where the two cities are still in the last occupied territories of Ukraine.
“The intensity of the fire in Sievierodonetsk has multiplied, they are only destroying the city,” he said on TV, adding that there were about 15,000 people living there.
Further west in Sloviansk, one of Ukraine’s largest Donbass cities, the sirens of Tuesday’s airstrikes sounded but the streets were still busy, a market full, children riding bikes and street musicians playing the violin near a supermarket.
Gaidai said Ukrainian forces had driven the Russians out of the village of Toshkivka, just south of Siviarodonetsk. Russian-backed separatists say they have taken control of Svitlodarsk, south of Bachmut. No reports have been independently verified.
‘Everyone is scared to death’
Three months after the war, some Western experts predicted that Russia would win in a matter of days. About 6.5 million people have fled abroad, countless thousands have been killed and cities have been reduced to rubble.
The war has far-reaching international implications, including growing food shortages and rising prices in developing countries that import Ukrainian grain.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday called for talks with Moscow on releasing wheat exports to Ukraine, which have been blocked by Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea.
Underlining the global geopolitical tensions expressed by the war, Japan – a key US ally in Asia that has joined Western sanctions against Russia – jet-shaken after Russian and Chinese warplanes approached its airspace on Tuesday during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Tokyo.
In Kharkiv, hundreds of people were still living underground in trains and stations when authorities asked them to make way on Tuesday so that metro services could resume.
At one station, some people were moving, others were sitting in makeshift beds or standing between assets and pets.
“Everyone is scared to death, because the shelling is still going on, the rocket attacks have not stopped,” said Natalia Lopanska, who lived on an underground metro train for most of the war.
Comments from senior Russian officials on Tuesday suggested plans for a pull-out conflict ahead. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia was deliberately moving slowly to avoid civilian casualties. Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s head of the Security Council, said Moscow was “not running out of time” and would fight as long as necessary to eradicate Ukraine’s “Nazism”, a justification for what the West called a baseless war.
The Battle of Donbass follows Russia’s biggest victory in months: the surrender of the Ukrainian garrison last week in the port of Mariupol after a nearly three-month siege where Kyiv believes thousands of civilians have died.
Petro Andruschenko, an aide to the Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, now working outside the Russian-controlled city, said the bodies were still being found in the rubble.
He said about 200 decomposing bodies were buried in the rubble in a basement of a tall building. The locals refused to collect them and the Russian authorities abandoned the area, leaving a stench throughout the district.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba tweeted that the “ruthless” attack on Donbass showed that Ukraine still needed more Western weapons, especially multiple launch rocket systems, long-range artillery and armored vehicles.
Highlighting the obstacles to a diplomatic solution to the conflict, a new poll on Tuesday found that 82% of Ukrainians believe that under no circumstances should any part of their country be signed as part of a peace deal with Russia.
In Russia, where criticism of the war has been banned and independent media shut down, jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny has used court appearances via video link from a prison colony to denounce “the stupid war your Putin started.”
“A madman got his nails in Ukraine and I don’t know what he wants to do with it – this mad thief,” Navalny said.
(Reporting by Alexander Kozukhar in Lviv, Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Genet in Kiev, Vitaly Hnidi in Kharkiv and Reuters journalists in Mariupol and Sloviansk; by Peter Graf and Gareth Jones; by Nick McPhee, John Boyle and editors)