Russian forces advanced deep into the ruined eastern factory city of Sievierodonetsk but Ukrainian troops were still holding out there on Friday as Russia’s assault on its neighbour reached its 100th day.
Ukraine’s defence minister said his troops were already training in Europe to operate new, advanced missile systems pledged this week by the United States and Britain, which Kyiv hopes will help swing the battle in its favour in coming weeks.
A war that Western countries believe Russia planned to win within hours has ground on for more than three months, with Moscow having been driven back from the capital but launching a huge new assault in the east.
Reuters reached Sievierodonetsk on Thursday and was able to verify that Ukrainians still held part of the city. Troops drove at high speed over roads littered with wrecked armoured vehicles. One soldier sat in the back seat, his face streaked with blood from injuries.
At another location in the city, Ukrainian troops, including foreign volunteers, were unloading weapons from a truck.
“We’re gonna push the Russians back. It will take a day, a month, or a year it does not fucking matter. We are on the right side of history,” said Zurab Kakalidze, a Georgian who described himself as “just a 22-year-old kid.”
“So we’re gonna make sure all of us: we’re gonna get back home with our families. And we’re gonna make sure the occupiers don’t do the same.”
The past weeks have seen Russia pour its forces into the battle for Sievierodonetsk, a small factory city in the east, which Russia must capture to achieve its stated aim of holding all of Luhansk province. Both sides have been taking punishing losses there in a street-by-street battle that could set the trajectory for a long war of attrition.
“I regret to say that the Russian army succeeded in making its way deep into the city… they control most of the city,” Ukrainian regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said in televised comments overnight.
He said about a fifth of the city was now a contested “grey zone”. Ukrainian fighters were holding out in one area, were still able to clear Russians out of some streets, and had captured six Russian prisoners the previous day.
“So I would tell sceptics not to write off Sievierodonetsk. It’s too early to do that. The city is holding on.”
Defence Minister Oleskiy Reznikov also said Ukrainian forces had some success in Sievierodonetsk overnight, though he said it was too early to give details.
Speaking by video link to a security conference in Bratislava, Reznikov said Ukrainian artillery crews were already training in Europe to operate new HIMARS and MLRS rocket systems pledged earlier this week by the United States and Britain.
Washington had said this week it expected around three weeks of training would be needed before Ukraine can begin using the rockets, which could hit Russian rear supply lines and help negate Russia’s artillery fire-power advantage at the front.
Asked when Ukraine would be able to reverse Russian gains and drive Russian forces out of eastern Ukraine, Reznikov said: “I forgot my tarot cards at home… I cannot forecast definitely what month we will kick them out. But I hope that it’s an absolutely realistic plan to do it this year.”
Slow but steady progress
Despite being driven from the north of Ukraine in March after a failed assault on the capital, Russia still controls around a fifth of Ukraine, about half seized in 2014 and half captured since launching its invasion on Feb. 24.
The massive Russian assault in the east in recent weeks has been one of the deadliest phases of the war for both sides. Moscow has made slow but steady progress, squeezing Ukrainian forces inside a pocket in Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, but has so far failed to encircle them.
Kyiv, meanwhile, hopes the Russian advance will leave Moscow’s forces so depleted that Ukraine can launch counter-offensives and recapture territory in months to come.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an overnight address that Kyiv was expecting more “good news” on foreign weapons, after the latest $700 million U.S. weapons package for Ukraine that will include rocket systems with a range of up to 80 km (50 miles).
President Joe Biden’s administration says Ukraine has promised not to use the rockets to hit targets in Russia. Moscow, which calls its invasion a “special military operation” to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine, says the Western weapons will pour “fuel on the fire”.
The war has had a devastating impact on the global economy, especially for poor countries that import food. Ukraine is one of the world’s leading sources of grain and cooking oil, supplies cut from the market by the closure of its Black Sea ports.
“Failure to open those ports will result in famine, destabilisation and mass migration around the world,” U.N. crisis coordinator Amin Awad said in Geneva, saying a grain shortage could affect 1.4 billion people.
Kyiv and its allies blame Moscow for blockading the Black Sea ports, which Ukraine has mined to prevent a Russian amphibious assault. Moscow says Western sanctions are to blame.
Turkey, a NATO member with good relations with both sides and control of the straits into the Black Sea, has offered to try to facilitate the reopening of Ukrainian ports. A senior Turkish official told Reuters Ankara expects progress on reaching a deal when Russia’s foreign minister visits Turkey next week.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin met the head of the African Union, Senegalese President Macky Sall. The Kremlin said Putin would explain why Moscow was not to blame for the food crisis, and that “no one on the Russian side is blocking the ports”.
Germany’s foreign ministry said the “risk of famine in parts of the world” was “a consequence of the Russian war of aggression and not of western sanctions”.
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