Kyiv, Ukraine (AFP) – Ukrainian forces battling Russian forces in a major eastern city appeared on the cusp of withdrawal Wednesday, despite the regional governor insisting they were still fighting “over every centimeter” of the city.
And the urban battle of Sievierodonetsk saw the painstaking progress, inch by inch by Russian forces as they approached control of the entire Luhansk region, one of two that make up the industrial heartland known as Donbass.
After an unsuccessful attempt to invade Kyiv In the early days of the war, Russia shifted its focus to the area of coal mines and factories. Russia-backed separatists have partially controlled the area for years, making supply lines shorter and allowing Moscow to take advantage of separatist forces to support its offensive. But Russia is also facing the toughest of Ukrainian forces in the fighting, which has been battling separatists for eight years there.
The result is a slow tug as the two sides exchange artillery bombardment apparently causing heavy casualties and neither seems to have a clear momentum.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Heidi acknowledged the difficulties in Severodonetsk on Wednesday, telling the Associated Press, “We may have to back off, but for now the battles are going on in the city.”
Earlier, on the messaging app Telegram, he said that Ukrainian forces are fighting “for every centimeter of the city.”
He pointed out that they can retreat to positions that are easy to defend. The city across the river, Lysychansk, is on higher ground.
Sievierodonetsk became the region’s administrative capital after separatists captured Luhansk in 2014. Both Lysychansk and Lysychansk are trapped between Russian forces to the east, north, and south, and are among the few cities and towns in Luhansk that are still holding out.
The Kremlin claimed that its forces controlled nearly all of the Luhansk region, and about half of the Donetsk region surrounding Donbass.
On the other hand, five people were killed and 12 others injured in the Russian shelling in the north of Kharkiv region during the past 24 hours, regional governor Oleh Sinihopov said Wednesday.
The Russian military said, on Wednesday, that Moscow used “high-precision air-launched missiles” to strike an armored vehicle repair plant near Kharkiv. There was no confirmation from Ukrainian officials that such a factory had been bombed.
On the diplomatic front, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks Wednesday with Turkish officials about a plan that could allow Ukraine to export its grain. Across the Black Sea to global markets amid the escalating global food crisis.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but the war and the Russian blockade of its ports have halted much of this flow, putting food supplies in many developing countries at risk. Many of these ports are now heavily mined.
An estimated 22 million tons of grain are in silos in Ukraine.
Turkey hopes to negotiate a safe passage, possibly overseen by the United Nations, for the shipment of Ukrainian grain — as well as Russian food and fertilizer.
Prior to the Russian invasion on February 24, Ukrainian officials said that Russia controlled about 7% of the country, Including Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Russian forces control 20% of the country.
While Russia has superior firepower, the Ukrainian defenders are well established and have demonstrated the ability to counterattack.
“The absolute heroic defense of Donbass continues,” Zelensky said late Tuesday in his video night address.
Speaking earlier to the Financial Times conference, Zelensky insisted Ukraine needed to defeat Russia on the battlefield, but also said he remained open to peace talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Speaking at a press conference after talks with Lavrov, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country was “more optimistic” about the possibility of persuading Russia and Ukraine to return to talks aimed at ending the war. Talks between the two sides hosted by Turkey earlier in the conflict yielded no progress.
But a former senior US intelligence officer said the time was not right.
“You’re not going to sit at the negotiating table until either side feels they have an advantage they can pay,” said Andrea Kendall Taylor of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.
The Russians “believe that they will be able to take over the whole of Donbass and then may use it as an opportunity to call for negotiations,” Kendall Taylor said at a webinar organized by Columbia and New York universities.
Associated Press journalists Oleksandr Stashevsky in Kyiv; Yuras Kermano in Lviv; Andrew Cattell of New York contributed to this report.
Follow the Associated Press’ coverage of the Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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