Russian forces now control more than two-thirds of the key eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk as Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, conceded that Kyiv’s forces were currently suffering up to 100 fatalities and 500 wounded every day.
With fierce street fighting in Sievierodonetsk, western officials suggested that the city of Sloviansk was the likely next target for a Russian advance that has made gains in the past fortnight, even as the Biden administration announced it was sending advanced rocket systems to Kyiv.
Confirming the latest gains in Sievierodonetsk, a strategically important city in Ukraine’s east, the Luhansk regional governor, Serhiy Haidai, said on Wednesday that Russia controlled 70% of the city.
“Unfortunately, today, Russian troops control most of the city,” said Haidai. “Some Ukrainian troops have retreated to more advantageous, pre-prepared positions.”
Haidai also said Russian forces had struck a tank containing nitric acid at a Sievierodonetsk chemical plant, calling on residents to stay in shelters. The high levels of attrition on the Ukrainian side, whose defenders have been pounded by Russian shelling , was conceded by Zelenskiy in an interview with the US Newsmax television channel.
“The situation is very difficult; we’re losing 60-100 soldiers per day as killed in action and something around 500 people as wounded in action. So we are holding our defensive perimeters.”
President Joe Biden announced the supply of advanced rocket systems, called Himars, and munitions that could strike with precision at long-range Russian targets as part of a $700m weapons package expected to be unveiled on Wednesday.
“We have moved quickly to send Ukraine a significant amount of weaponry and ammunition so it can fight on the battlefield and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table,” Biden wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times.
Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces continued to pound northern, southern and eastern districts of the city of Sievierodonetsk in Luhansk, one of two provinces in the eastern Donbas region that Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
If Russia captures Sievierodonetsk, and its smaller twin Lysychansk on the higher west bank of the Siverskyi Donets river, it will hold all of Luhansk, a key war aim of President Vladimir Putin’s forces.
The update added that Russian forces were regrouping and strengthening their positions in preparation to launch a renewed attack on the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk in Donetsk. Russian forces currently occupy Izium, a city north of Sloviansk.
Britain’s defence ministry said in its latest intelligence bulletin that Russian forces including Chechen fighters now controlled more than half of Sievierodonetsk after two days of intense street fighting.
The latest fighting in the east came amid predictions from some analysts that Russia may be overstretched in other areas, including around Kherson.
In its daily update, the US-based Institute for the Study of War noted: “Moscow’s concentration on seizing Sievierodonetsk and Donbas generally continues to create vulnerabilities for Russia in Ukraine’s vital Kherson oblast, where Ukrainian counter-offensives continue.
“Kherson is critical terrain because it is the only area of Ukraine in which Russian forces hold ground on the west bank of the Dnipro River.
“If Russia is able to retain a strong lodgement in Kherson when fighting stops it will be in a very strong position from which to launch a future invasion. If Ukraine regains Kherson, on the other hand, Ukraine will be in a much stronger position to defend itself against future Russian attack.”
However, a recent limited Ukrainian counteroffensive around Kherson appears to have had only limited success so far.
An official in southern Ukraine said Russian troops were retreating and blowing up bridges to obstruct a possible Ukrainian advance.
Zelenskiy said in his nightly address on Tuesday that Ukrainian fighters had seen “some success in the Kherson direction”.
Russia is concentrating most of its military power on trying to capture all of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Franz-Stefan Gady, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, also cautioned how much impact the newly announced US rocket systems might have on the balance of the fighting and how quickly they could be effectively deployed.
Writing on Twitter he said: “We have an incomplete picture of the current combat status of the Ukrainian armed forces. I would be cautious when attempting to assess how quickly Ukraine would be able to integrate new platforms/weapons systems to increase combat effectiveness in a larger-scale counteroffensive.
“Combined arms manoeuvre is a complex undertaking. What you don’t want is rushing undertrained brigades into combat. Knowing how to rudimentary use and do simple repairs on a weapon system is merely the first step and does not indicate how effective units will be in actual combat.”