KYIV/SLOVYANSK, Ukraine (Dispatches) -- Russian forces were conducting an all-out assault on Tuesday to encircle Ukrainian troops in twin cities straddling a river in eastern Ukraine, a battle which could determine the success or failure of Moscow’s main campaign in the east.
Exactly three months after President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces into Ukraine, the decisive battles of the war’s latest phase are still raging, with Moscow attempting to seize the Donbas region of two eastern provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, and trap Ukrainian forces in a pocket on the main eastern front.
The easternmost part of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, the city of Sievierodonetsk on the east bank of the Siverskiy Donets river and its twin Lysychansk on the west bank, have become the pivotal battlefield there, with Russian forces advancing from three directions to encircle them.
“The enemy has focused its efforts on carrying out an offensive in order to encircle Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk,” said Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk province, where the two cities are among the last territory still held by Ukraine.
“The intensity of fire on Sievierodonetsk has increased by multiple times, they are simply destroying the city,” he said on TV, adding there were about 15,000 people living there.
Further west in Slovyansk, one of the biggest Donbas cities still in Ukrainian hands, air raid sirens wailed on Tuesday but streets were still busy, with a market full, children riding bikes and a street musician playing violin by a supermarket.
Gaidai said Ukrainian forces had driven the Russians out of the village of Toshkivka just south of Sievierodonetsk. Russian-backed separatists said they had taken control of Svitlodarsk, south of Bakhmut. Neither report could be independently confirmed.
Three months into the war, around 6.5 million people have fled abroad, uncounted thousands have been killed and cities have been reduced to rubble.
The war has also had massive international ramifications, including growing food shortages and soaring prices in developing countries that import Ukrainian grain.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday called for talks with Moscow on unlocking wheat exports now trapped in Ukraine because of a Russian blockade in the Black Sea.
Underlining the global geopolitical tensions unleashed by the war, Japan - a key U.S. ally in Asia which has joined Western sanctions against Russia - scrambled jets on Tuesday after Russian and Chinese warplanes neared its airspace during a visit to Tokyo by U.S. President Joe Biden.
Comments by senior Russian officials on Tuesday suggested plans for a drawn-out conflict ahead. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia was deliberately advancing slowly to avoid civilian casualties. Nikolai Patrushev, head of Putin’s security council, said Moscow was not “chasing deadlines” and would fight as long as necessary to eradicate “Nazism” in Ukraine.
The Donbas fighting follows Russia’s biggest victory in months: the surrender last week of Ukraine’s garrison in the port of Mariupol after nearly three months of siege in which Kyiv believes tens of thousands of civilians have died.
Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to Mariupol’s Ukrainian mayor now operating outside the Russian-held city, said the dead were still being found in the rubble.
Around 200 decomposing bodies were buried in rubble in a basement of one high-rise building, he said. Locals had refused to collect them and Russian authorities had abandoned the site, leaving a stench across the district.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that the “ruthless” offensive in Donbas showed Ukraine still needed more Western arms, especially multiple launch rocket systems, long-range artillery and armored vehicles.
Highlighting the obstacles to a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, a new poll on Tuesday showed 82% of Ukrainians believe their country should not sign away any territory as part of a peace deal with Russia under any circumstances.
Pentagon Mulls Sending ‘High-Tech Weapons’
Nearly 50 defense leaders from around the world met Monday and
agreed to send more advanced weapons to Ukraine, including a Harpoon launcher and missiles to protect its coast, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters.
And Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “low-level” discussion is underway on how the U.S. may need to adjust its training of Ukrainian forces and on whether some U.S. troops should be based in Ukraine.
The U.S. withdrew its few troops in Ukraine before the war and has no plans to send in combat forces. Milley’s comments left open the possibility troops could return for embassy security or another non-combat role.
The U.S. embassy in Kyiv has partially reopened and is staffing up again, and there have been questions about whether the U.S. will send a Marine security force back in to help protect the embassy or if other options should be considered.
Asked if U.S. special operations forces may go into Ukraine, which officials have insisted they are not doing yet, Milley said that “any reintroduction of U.S. forces into Ukraine would require a presidential decision. So we’re a ways away from anything like that.”
Speaking to Pentagon reporters, Austin declined to say if the U.S. will send Ukraine high-tech mobile rocket launchers, which it has requested. But Austin said that some 20 nations announced Monday that they will send new packages of security assistance to Ukraine, as its war with Russia reaches the three-month mark.
In particular, he said that Denmark has agreed to send a Harpoon launcher and missiles to Ukraine to help Ukraine defend its coast. Russia has ships in the Black Sea and has used them to launch cruise missiles into Ukraine. The Russian ships have also stopped all commercial ship traffic from entering Ukraine ports.
“We’ve gained a sharper, shared sense of Ukraine’s priority requirements and the situation on the battlefield,” Austin told reporters at the close of the virtual meeting with the defense leaders. “Many countries are donating critically needed artillery ammunition, coastal defense systems and tanks and other armored vehicles. Others came forward with new commitments for training.”
The U.S. and other countries have been training Ukrainian forces in nearby European countries.
Austin added that the Czech Republic recently donated attack helicopters, tanks and rockets, and that Italy, Greece, Norway and Poland announced new donations Monday of artillery systems and ammunition.
“The nature of the fight, as you’ve heard us describe a number of times is ... really shaped by artillery in this phase,” said Austin. “And we’ve seen serious exchanges of artillery fires over the last several weeks.”
Austin said that during the virtual meeting, Ukraine officials made clear their security needs. And he said those are consistent with what has been identified in recent weeks — long-range artillery and rocket systems, armored personnel carriers and drones.
Milley provided the greatest detail to date on the increased U.S. presence in Europe since Russia launched its operation in late February. Last fall, there were roughly 78,000 U.S. troops in the region, and that has gone up to 102,000 — including 24 surface ships, four submarines, 12 fighter jet squadrons, two combat aviation units, and six Army brigade combat teams, along with their division and corps leaderships.