Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers appeared to be nearly surrounded as Russian troops advanced Thursday around two strategically important cities in eastern Ukraine in what a senior Ukrainian official called a “terrifying climax” to the battle for the Donbas, indicating that the fall of a significant portion of the region was forthcoming.
The comment, by Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, highlighted the stark contrast between the battlefield and growing international diplomacy in support of Ukraine as the war approaches its fourth month.
Millions of people have been displaced, cities are in ruins and emergency sirens have become a terrifying part of everyday life in many parts of the country, even as Western support for them grows. At a meeting on Thursday in Brussels, European Union representatives were expected to grant Ukraine EU candidate status. The idea that once faced major hurdles in the bloc has gained traction amid the protracted war and economic sanctions against Russia.
The decision would not guarantee admission to the EU. It wouldn’t come with extra security for Ukraine either. In a process that could ultimately take at least a decade, Ukraine would have to meet economic and political requirements and gain unanimous approval from the 27 EU members.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has called the EU meeting a “critical moment” for the nation, said in a late-night speech that the war was reaching a tipping point and repeated pleas for more help from Western powers†
“We need to liberate our country and get the victory, but faster, much faster,” Zelensky said early Thursday when he asked for bigger and faster armaments.
The US and other Western countries have increased deliveries of heavy weapons to Ukraine. Still, Zelensky and Kiev military officials say Moscow’s military superiority is hard to match in what has become an ongoing artillery battle in the east. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzianyk this week estimated that Russian fire is often six-to-one larger than Ukrainian fire.
“There were massive air and artillery attacks in Donbas. The aim of the occupier is unchanged here. They want to destroy the entire Donbas step by step,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address. The president said that “Russian forces are striving to turn every city into Mariupol,” the major port city that overtook Moscow last month.
The Russian advance around the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk underlined the do-or-die strategy the Ukrainians have adopted for their defense.
Ukrainians have slowed down Moscow’s advance and Russians have suffered losses as they gained ground in the Donbas. But the cost was devastating, often leaving Ukrainian defenders no escape route.
In Lysychansk, Ukrainian personnel said on Thursday that the Russian military had made gains along the Seversky Donets River with clear intentions to encircle Lysychansk from the north and south. That would trap thousands of Ukrainian soldiers. The river separates Lysychansk from Severodonetsk.
It was not clear on Thursday whether the Russian encirclement around the cities had been completely closed. An aid worker who delivered aid to Lysychansk said he could still get to the city from the west, but the Russians were closing in on the access. He said the Russians had already overrun the suburbs south of Lysychansk.
Alexander, a special police instructor in Lysychansk, acknowledged that the situation was bad. “It’s difficult, we understand that,” he said on Thursday. “But we’re standing.”
The war, now largely concentrated in the east, is continuing in other regions of the Donbas as well.
According to regional governor Oleh Sinegubov, shelling last night in the second-largest city, Kharkiv, and surrounding towns, killing 10 people. The Ukrainian military — whose counter-offensive in the south has reportedly turned a profit around Kherson — said on Thursday that three cruise missiles hit the city of Mykolaiv. The military also said two rockets were shot down near the coastal city of Odessa.
To the west, the city of Lviv has remained the least affected city. An important route for refugees and international workers on their way to Poland, Lviv’s shops were open and the streets were busy. At a border crossing on the Ukraine-Poland border, the truck lane was crowded as regular travelers quickly entered.
Once through the border, Ukrainian soldiers headed for training to a bus where an army officer was standing and checking names off a list. At the Polish end of the crossing, hundreds of cars were waiting to enter Ukraine, forming a line for miles.
It was in stark contrast to eastern Ukraine, where darkened ghost towns and the unsettling silence after air raid sirens are most apparent.
Bulos reported from Lviv and Kaleem from London.