Russia shells frontline positions as fighting focuses on Donbas city


Russian forces have shelled frontline positions in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas area as fighting becomes increasingly focused on Severodonetsk, the easternmost city still held by Ukrainian forces after more than 11 weeks of war.

Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk region, said on Monday that Russian strikes had hit a hospital in the city over the weekend, killing two and injuring nine, including a child – and several other locations had been targeted.

Ukrainian forces repelled 17 attacks on Sunday, he added, and destroyed 11 Russian armoured vehicles. The air force command said Ukrainians downed two helicopters, two cruise missiles and seven drones.

The Russians are gradually mounting an assault on Severodonetsk, an industrial city that had a population of 100,000 before the war, as the effort to complete a wider encirclement of Ukraine’s defending forces in the Donbas appears to have failed.

Overnight the US Institute for the Study of War said it believed “Russian forces have likely abandoned the objective of completing a large-scale encirclement of Ukrainian units from Donetsk City to Izium” in favour of capturing the remainder of the Luhansk region, of which Severodonetsk is part.

A smaller-scale encirclement of Severodonetsk also failed last week after Russian forces were defeated with heavy losses in a series of unsuccessful attempts to cross the Siverskyi Donets River at Bilohorivka. The river is increasingly becoming a dividing line between the two sides in the Donbas – the name given collectively to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – and around Kharkiv to the north.

Ukraine says footage shows soldiers in Kharkiv region at Russian border – video

The scale of the Bilohorivka defeat, in which more than 70 Russian vehicles were estimated to have been destroyed, based on aerial photography of the battle site, has also led some Russian military bloggers to comment “on the incompetence of the Russian military to their hundreds of thousands of followers”, the institute said, a rare sign of internal dissent.

Haidai said battles were taking place on Sunday to the north and south of Severodonetsk, which is one of the few locations held by Ukraine on the east side of the river. Analysts believe there may be a long struggle for the city.

Konrad Muzyka, the founder of Rochan Consulting, which specialises in open source intelligence, said he believed the capture of Severodonetsk was weeks away. “Moscow … does not have the appropriate manpower and equipment levels to take the city swiftly,” he said in a weekly review of the fighting.

British military intelligence estimated on Sunday that Russia had lost about a third of the ground combat force deployed in February, and its Donbas offensive, which started in April, had fallen “significantly behind schedule”, making only gradual progress.

On Monday, the British also highlighted that Belarus, which is supporting Russia, had announced “the deployment of special operations forces along the Ukraine border” – most likely to “fix Ukrainian troops” in Kyiv and Kharkiv so they cannot reinforce the forces defending in the Donbas.

Overall, Russia has made significant territorial gains during the 11 weeks of fighting, capturing the south coast from Kherson to Mariupol – where fighting around the steel plant continues – and 90% of Luhansk.

Gen Sir Richard Barrons, a former commander of UK Joint Forces Command, said the west needed to consider “the peril of annexation” – which is when Russia reaches a point where it believes it cannot advance any more and “may then run a series of sort of faux referenda [that] annexes territory into the Russian Federation”.

Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Barrons said Moscow may then try to argue that the territory seized now “sits behind the Russian nuclear deterrent”, which would make any Ukrainian counteroffensive that Kyiv hopes to mount in May and June more complex.

Ukrainian forces are successfully counterattacking around Kharkiv, with the Russians conducting a fighting withdrawal towards the border in the north and to the Siverskyi Donets east of the city. The city, which had a prewar population of more than 1 million, had been under a state of siege since the beginning of the war.

Ukrainian recovery of territory remains limited elsewhere, although its forces are increasingly being supported by the arrival of western military equipment. All but one of 90 155mm howitzers promised by the US have been delivered, US officials have said in the past week.

Ukrainian border guards also said they repelled a Russian attempt on Monday morning to send troops into the northern Sumy region, well away from the current frontlines. The border service said Russian forces fired weapons in an attempt to cover a “sabotage and reconnaissance group” crossing the border from Russia.

Over the weekend, in western Ukraine near Poland, missiles destroyed military infrastructure and were fired at the Lviv region from the Black Sea, Ukrainian officials said. A missile strike took place in Odesa on Monday, destroying buildings, while 10 civilians were wounded in the southern region of Mykolaiv, the regional council said.

Ukrainian troops received a morale boost from the country’s Eurovision song contest victory at the weekend, with some saying it was a sign of battlefield victories to come. “We have shown that we can not only fight, but we can also sing very nice,” said Vitaliy, a soldier bunkered down north of Kyiv.

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