Ukraine’s president says the fate of the Donbas depends on “very brutal” fighting in Sievierodonetsk, a city that has emerged as a major battleground in recent weeks.
Russia besieges the eastern city as it pursues its goal of conquering the vast Donbas region.
“This is a very brutal battle, very tough, perhaps one of the most difficult in this war,” President Zelenskyy said in his overnight message.
“Sievierodonetsk remains the epicenter of the meeting in Donbas… There, the fate of our Donbas is now largely decided there,” he added.
He said Ukraine “inflicted significant losses to the enemy”, but many troops also withdrew to the outskirts of the city yesterday amid heavy shelling.
The center of the city — with a pre-war population of about 100,000 — is being turned into a wasteland, said the governor of Luhansk — one of two regions that make up the Donbas.
“Our fighters are holding in the industrial zone of Sievierodonetsk,” Serhiy Gaidai said.
“But there is fighting not only in the industrial zone, but also in the city of Sievierodonetsk.”
An adviser to President Zelenskyy’s office, Oleksiy Arestovych, said airstrikes and artillery stormed the city from afar. “They strike hard without any success,” he added.
Ukrainian troops are massively outnumbered in the Donbas, the US ambassador from Kiev told CNN.
However, it is hoped that longer-range missile systems sent from America and the UK could help fight the Russian artillery that is doing so much damage.
‘Endless Caravan of Death’ in the ruins
As the battle for Sievierodonetsk rages on, an official in Mariupol said an “endless caravan of death” was discovered as they searched ruined buildings.
Fifty to 100 bodies are found in each bombed apartment block and about two-fifths of the city’s buildings have been searched so far, mayor’s assistant Petro Andryushchenko said.
The remains are taken to landfills and morgues.
The southeastern city is now in Russian hands after the worst attack of the war killed more than 20,000 people, according to Ukrainian estimates.
Meanwhile, political bickering over the threat of war to the food supply continues.
Russia has expressed support for a UN plan to get Ukraine’s grain exports flowing again. An estimated 22 million tons are trapped in the country.
Ukraine is a major producer of wheat, maize and sunflower oil and there are fears that the Russian blockade of ports could cause serious food shortages in some developing countries.
Turkey has been trying to strike a deal to reopen the ports and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met his Turkish counterpart on Wednesday for talks.
Mr Lavrov said the ports will be able to work again if the mines are removed from surrounding waters.
However, Ukraine fears it would allow Russia to attack the coast and does not rely on the Kremlin’s guarantees to the contrary.
Russia itself is a major grain exporter and has blamed the food supply problems on Western sanctions against its ships.
European Council President Charles Michel has denied the allegations, accusing Russia of “arming the food supply and surrounding their actions with a Soviet-style web of lies”.