The fate of Ukraine’s Donbas region hinges on the city of Severodonetsk, President Volodymyr Zelensky warned overnight, as he called on defenders to push back against Russian advances that have increasingly darkened the outlook for the eastern part of his embattled country.
The war in Ukraine, which entered its 16th week Thursday, has shifted from attempts to capture the capital city of Kyiv and northeastern metropolis of Kharkiv to the eastern industrial heartland, where Russia has long fomented separatism and now controls swaths of territory.
Kyiv, where missiles struck suburbs earlier in the war and mass graves were later discovered in a suburb, is welcoming back foreign dignitaries as embassies reopen, and Russian forces have been largely repelled around Kharkiv. But Moscow’s troops occupy the southeastern port city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian fighters held out for weeks in an underground steelworks complex amid sustained assault, and Kherson, the southern coastal city that was the first to fall.
Now, in one of the few points on which the two nations seem to agree, the Donbas appears poised to fall unless Ukrainians stage a turnaround — something they have accomplished before in other regions of this fertile land but that is looking more difficult by the day.
Severodonetsk in Luhansk, one of two provinces that make up the Donbas, is “the epicenter of the confrontation,” Zelensky said in an overnight address Wednesday.
He said Ukraine had inflicted “significant losses on the enemy.” But that claim could not be verified and came days after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that 97% of Luhansk had been “liberated” by Russia, a term Moscow uses in line with its false description of the war as an effort to save Ukrainians and Russian speakers from a corrupt “neo-Nazi” government.
“The fate of our Donbas is being decided there,” Zelensky said of Severodonetsk, where the two sides have been locked in vicious street battles. Previously, he has described Severodonetsk and its sister city of Lysychansk, both along the strategic Seversky Donets River, as “dead cities” laid waste by the grinding war of attrition.
Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized his own narrative Thursday, claiming that the invasion of Ukraine has been a rightful mission to restore what is inherently Russian. He appeared to compare himself to Peter the Great in his conquest of the Baltic coast.
“On the face of it, he was at war with Sweden taking something away from it,” he said on the 350th anniversary of Peter’s birth after a visit to a multimedia exhibit honoring his legacy.
“He was not taking away anything. … He was returning and reinforcing, that is what he was doing. Clearly, it fell to our lot to return and reinforce as well,” Putin said.
At least 4.8 million refugees from Ukraine have been recorded across 44 countries since the start of the war in mid-February, according to data released Thursday by the United Nations refugee agency.
As fighting raged, pro-Russia rebels in the Donbas said they had sentenced a Moroccan and two British citizens to death for fighting on the Ukrainian side to “overthrow” the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. The three have a month to appeal before being scheduled for execution by firing squad, Russian state news organization RIA Novosti reported Thursday.
At least hundreds of foreign fighters, including Americans, have traveled to Ukraine over the months to take up arms in support of the country.
The sentencing followed two war crimes trials in Ukraine last month that saw three Russian soldiers sentenced to prison, including a 21-year-old who received a life sentence for killing a civilian.
Air and ground assaults were reported across the Donbas on Thursday.
“The enemy fired on our units with mortars, artillery and multiple-rocket launchers,” the Ukrainian military said in a statement Thursday. “It fired on civilian infrastructure in the settlements of Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Privillya, Ustynivka, Horske and Katerynivka.”
Approaching the front lines here in Lysychansk, the signs of war were clear.
Booms, the whoosh of rocket launchers releasing their payloads and the ripping sound of heavy machine guns reverberated in the air. The hours-long artillery duels between Ukrainians and their Russian adversaries had left many parts of Severodonetsk burning Thursday morning.
Even as fighting begins to engulf parts of Lysychansk, some residents insisted on staying.
“This is my homeland. I was born here. Why should I leave?” said Alexander, a pensioner who gave only his first name. He sat with a few others in the backyard of an artillery-ravaged building, heating water for tea on a makeshift oven.
The mayor of Severodonetsk, Oleksandr Striuk, described his city’s plight Thursday as “difficult but manageable.”
But Luhansk regional Gov. Serhiy Haidai said in a statement that the situation was so dire that it was impossible to evacuate people from the city.
In other hard-hit cities, including Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, intermittent evacuations continued even as battles raged.
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Haidai, like Zelensky, said Ukraine needed the West to send more long-range weapons to help with defenses. With those, the governor said, Ukraine could retake positions in Severodonetsk “in two or three days.”
Taking over the Donbas would allow Moscow to achieve ambitions of expanding its territorial control westward, adding to the land it has already snatched from Ukraine. That includes Crimea, the peninsula it illegally annexed in 2014.
The Donbas is also home to part of Ukraine’s significant agricultural industry. The nation, called the “breadbasket of Europe,” has seen its exports blocked by Russian ships guarding its ports. Much of the exports typically go to North Africa and the Middle East.
Speaking on TV on Thursday, Zelensky warned of a potential food crisis if foreign nations and humanitarian groups do not intervene to help release corn, oil and wheat exports.
Zelensky said the world was approaching a “terrible food crisis,” a position that has been echoed by humanitarian and trade organizations in recent months.
“This means that, unfortunately, there may be a physical shortage of products in dozens of countries around the world,” he said. “Millions of people may starve if the Russian blockade of the Black Sea continues.”
A report this week from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program said that the war could leave an additional 47 million people “food insecure” this year. The number takes into account the increasing energy costs from bans on Russian oil and gas imports.
Turkey, which has hosted talks between the two sides, has been attempting to coordinate an agreement between Ukraine and Russia to allow for grain shipments across the Black Sea.
Ukraine has accused Russia of using the war to steal grain from its lands, an accusation that the British foreign minister, among others, has called on to be investigated.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no deal.
“No agreements have been reached yet,” Peskov said. “Work is underway.”
Bulos reported from Lysychansk, Kaleem from London and Baumgaertner from Los Angeles.