Russian forces are closing in on encircling Ukrainian troops to the east
- Russian forces reach key highway from Donbas cities
- kyiv says 25 battalions involved in assault
- Shells hit Kharkiv where the Russians had been pushed back
- Russia warns West against supplying long-range weapons
KYIV/SVITLODARSK, Ukraine, May 26 (Reuters) – Advancing Russian forces closed in on surrounding Ukrainian troops to the east, briefly seizing positions on the last highway of a crucial pair of ISIS-held towns. Ukraine before being pushed back, a Ukrainian official said. said Thursday.
Three months after its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has abandoned its assault on the capital kyiv and is trying to consolidate control of the industrial region of eastern Donbass, where it has supported a separatist revolt since 2014.
Thousands of troops attack from three sides in an attempt to surround Ukrainian forces in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. If the two cities straddling the Siverskiy Donets River fell, almost all of the Donbass province of Luhansk would be under Russian control.
Join now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
“Russia has the advantage, but we are doing everything we can,” said General Oleksiy Gromov, deputy head of the main operations department of the Ukrainian General Staff.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said around 50 Russian soldiers had reached the highway and “managed to gain a foothold”, even setting up a checkpoint.
“The checkpoint was broken, they were pushed back…the Russian army is not controlling the road now, but they are bombarding it,” he said. It was possible that Ukrainian troops would leave “a colony, maybe two. We have to win the war, not the battle”, he said.
“It’s clear that our boys are slowly retreating to more fortified positions – we have to hold off this horde,” Gaidai added.
Western military analysts see the battle for the two cities as a potential turning point in the war, now that Russia has redefined its primary objective as capturing the East.
Reuters reporters in Russian-held territory further south saw evidence of Moscow’s advance into Svitlodarsk, where Ukrainian forces withdrew earlier this week.
The town is now firmly under the control of pro-Russian fighters, who have occupied the local government building and hung a Soviet hammer and sickle flag on the gate.
Reuters drone footage of the nearby abandoned battlefield showed craters marking a green field surrounded by destroyed buildings. Pro-Russian fighters were busy in the trenches. The Ukrainian military said 50 towns in Donetsk and Luhansk were shelled on Thursday, killing nine civilians.
Russia’s recent gains in Donbass follow the surrender of Ukraine’s Mariupol garrison last week and suggest a change in momentum after weeks of Ukrainian forces advancing near Kharkiv in the northeast.
“Recent Russian gains give sobering short-term expectations,” tweeted defense analyst Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at US think tank CNA.
Russian troops have broken through Ukrainian lines at Popasna, south of Sievierodonetsk, and are threatening to surround Ukrainian forces, he wrote.
Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Vadym Denisenko told a briefing that 25 Russian battalions were trying to surround Ukrainian forces.
The head of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valeriy Zaluzhny, asked Telegram for more Western weapons, including “weapons that will allow us to hit the enemy from a great distance”.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later warned that any arms supply that could reach Russian territory would be “a serious step towards an unacceptable escalation”.
A few weeks ago, Ukrainian forces advanced, pushing Russian troops from the outskirts of Kharkiv towards the Russian border.
But Moscow appears to have halted its retreat there, retaining a strip of territory along the border and preventing Ukrainian troops from cutting off Russian supply lines that run east from the city to the Donbass.
Russian shelling killed at least nine civilians, including a five-month-old baby, and injured 17 in Kharkiv, regional governor Oleh Synehubov said, as Russian forces dug in and maintained control of positions in northern villages . Read more
“It’s noisy here but it’s at least my house,” said Maryna Karabierova, 38, as another explosion could be heard nearby. She had returned to Kharkiv after fleeing to Poland and Germany at the start of the war. “It can happen at any time, night, day: that’s life here.”
Russia did not immediately comment on the situation in Kharkiv. He denied targeting civilians in what he calls his “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The advance from Donbass was supported by massive artillery bombardment. Ukraine’s armed forces said more than 40 towns in the region had been shelled in the past 24 hours, destroying or damaging 47 civilian sites, including 38 homes and a school.
Western countries led by the United States have supplied Ukraine with long-range weapons, including M777 howitzers from Washington and Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Denmark.
Washington is even considering providing kyiv with a rocket system that could have a range of hundreds of miles and has had discussions with kyiv about the danger of escalation if it strikes deep inside Russia, officials told Reuters. US and diplomatic officials. Read more
“We have concerns about escalation and yet we still don’t want to put geographic limits on them or tie their hands too much with what we’re giving them,” a US official said, speaking under cover of the ‘anonymity.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a Twitter Q&A that “without multiple rocket launch systems, we won’t be able to repel them.” He said that if Russia were to ask for a ceasefire, “we would think twice, thrice before accepting it”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow expects Ukraine to accept its demands in future peace talks. He wants kyiv to recognize Russian sovereignty over the Crimean peninsula which Moscow seized in 2014, and the independence of the territory claimed by the separatists. Read more
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said Putin should not be allowed to impose peace terms. Read more
“There will be no dictated peace,” Scholz said in Davos. “Ukraine will not accept this, and neither will we.”
Join now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Additional reporting by Max Hunder in Kyiv, Mari Saito in Kharkiv and Reuters reporters in Svitlodarsk; Written by Peter Graff and Andrew Heavens; Editing by Gareth Jones, Catherine Evans and Daniel Wallis
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.