Russia drops focus on Ukrainian capital Kyiv to capture Donbass region

Advancing Russian forces are closer to encircled Ukrainian troops to the east, briefly taking positions on the last highway of a crucial pair of Ukrainian-held towns before being pushed back.

Russia deployed thousands of troops in its assault on the eastern Donbass region, attacking from three sides in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.

The fall of the cities would place almost all of Luhansk province under Russian control, a key objective of the Kremlin War.

Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk province, acknowledged that Ukrainian forces were retreating, but said the last road from Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk, which straddles the Siversky Donets River, remained out of Russian control.

In an interview posted on social media on Thursday, Governor Gaidai said that “about 50” Russian soldiers reached the highway from Lysychansk to Ukrainian-controlled Bakhmut and “managed to gain a foothold for some time.” They even set up a sort of checkpoint there.”

“The checkpoint was broken, they were pushed back. That is to say, the Russian army is not controlling the road now, but is bombarding it,” he added.

“From the first day, all the territory, all the positions of the soldiers, were bombarded. Many of our fortified structures have been destroyed,” Gaidai said. “It is clear that our boys are slowly falling back to more fortified positions – we must hold off this horde.”

He hinted at further Ukrainian withdrawals, saying it was possible the troops would leave “one settlement, maybe two. We must win the war, not the battle”.

Western military analysts see the battle for the two cities as a potential turning point in the war, now that Russia has defined its main objective as capturing the East.

Reuters journalists operating in Russian-held territory further south have seen evidence of Moscow’s advance in the town of Svitlodarsk, where Ukrainian forces withdrew earlier this week.

The city is now firmly controlled by pro-Russian fighters, who have occupied the local government building and hung a red flag bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle on the door.

Drone footage filmed by Reuters reporters at the nearby abandoned battlefield showed dozens of craters marking a green field surrounded by destroyed buildings.

Pro-Russian fighters were busy in the trenches.

Russia’s recent gains in Donbass follow the surrender of Ukraine’s Mariupol garrison last week and suggest a change in momentum on the battlefield after weeks of Ukrainian forces advancing near Kharkiv in the North-east.

Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Vadym Denisenko told a briefing that the situation was very tense as 25 Russian battalions tried to surround Ukrainian forces.

A full-strength battalion has about 800 men.

“Everything is now focused on Donbass.”

Three months after its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has abandoned its assault on the capital kyiv and is trying to consolidate control of the industrial region of eastern Donbass, where it has supported a separatist revolt since 2014.

The Russian advance was supported by heavy artillery bombardment.

Ukraine’s armed forces said more than 40 towns in the region had been shelled in the past 24 hours, destroying or damaging 47 civilian sites, including 38 homes and a school.

This week, global attention has focused on Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports, which has halted exports from one of the world’s largest grain and cooking oil suppliers.

The United Nations says the blockade could worsen world hunger.

Western countries demanded that Moscow lift the blockade.

Russia says Western financial sanctions against Russia are to blame for the food crisis, although it has not explained how this is linked to its naval blockade of Ukrainian ports.

Christi C. Elwood