Russian forces move closer to encircling Ukrainian troops in the east

Advancing Russian forces came closer to surrounding Ukrainian troops in the eastern part of Ukraine, briefly seizing positions on the last highway out of a crucial pair of Ukrainian-held cities before being beaten back, a Ukrainian official said on Thursday.

Troops attacking from 3 sides in bid to encircle Ukrainian forces in Severodonetsk, Lysychansk

A man walks near the remains of a missile in the city of Lysychansk, in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, on Thursday. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Updates from Day 92 of the invasion

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urges stronger Western action against Russia.

  • Ukraine's armed forces say dozens of towns shelled in last 24 hours.

  • 9 civilians reportedly killed in shelling in northwest Ukraine, in Kharkiv.

  • Russia's Peskov, West exchange recriminations about food supply issues.

Advancing Russian forces came closer to surrounding Ukrainian troops in the eastern part of Ukraine, briefly seizing positions on the last highway out of a crucial pair of Ukrainian-held cities before being beaten back, a Ukrainian official said on Thursday.

Three months into its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has abandoned its assault on the capital Kyiv and is trying to consolidate control of the industrial eastern Donbas region, where it has backed a separatist revolt since 2014.

A woman stands in front of a damaged building in Irpin, Ukraine, on Thursday. (Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press)

Thousands of troops are attacking from three sides to try to encircle Ukrainian forces in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. If the two cities straddling the Siverskiy Donets river fall, nearly all of the Donbas province of Luhansk would be under Russian control.

"Russia has the advantage, but we are doing everything we can," said Gen. Oleksiy Gromov, deputy chief of the main operations department of Ukraine's general staff.

Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said that around 50 Russian soldiers had reached the highway and "managed to gain a foothold," even setting up a checkpoint.

"The checkpoint was broken, they were thrown back … the Russian army does not control the route now, but they are shelling it," he said in an interview posted on social media.

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He said it was possible Ukrainian troops would leave "one settlement, maybe two. We need to win the war, not the battle."

"It is clear that our boys are slowly retreating to more fortified positions — we need to hold back this horde," Gaidai said.

A partial view of a building in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, which has been damaged as a result of a missile strike. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

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

A possible shift in momentum

Reuters journalists in Russian-held territory further south saw proof of Moscow's advance in the town of Svitlodarsk, where Ukrainian forces withdrew earlier this week.

The town is now under firm control of pro-Russian fighters, who have occupied the local government building and hung a Soviet hammer and sickle flag at the door.

A man walks on Thursday past an abandoned building damaged in a missile strike, amid Russia's invasion of the country, in the city of Kramatorsk, Donetsk region. (Carlos Berria/Reuters)

Reuters drone footage of the nearby abandoned battlefield showed craters pockmarking a green field surrounded by wrecked buildings. Pro-Russian fighters were milling about in trenches. Ukraine's military said 50 towns in Donetsk and Luhansk came under shelling on Thursday, with nine civilians killed.

Russia's recent gains in the Donbas follow the surrender of Ukraine's garrison in Mariupol last week, and suggest a shift in momentum on the battlefield after weeks in which Ukrainian forces had advanced near Kharkiv in the northeast.

"Recent Russian gains offer a sobering check on expectations for the near term," tweeted defence analyst Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the U.S.-based CNA think-tank.

Russian troops have broken through Ukrainian lines at Popasna, south of Severodonetsk, and are threatening to encircle Ukrainian forces, he wrote.

Ukrainian interior ministry adviser Vadym Denisenko told a briefing that 25 Russian battalions were attempting to surround the Ukrainian forces.

The head of Ukraine's armed forces, Valery Zaluzhny, called for more help from the West, particularly "weapons that will allow us to hit the enemy at a big distance," using the social media platform Telegram.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, later warned that any supplies of weapons that could reach Russian territory would be a "a serious step towards unacceptable escalation."

Deaths in Kharkiv

A few weeks ago, it was Ukrainian forces that were advancing, pushing Russian troops back from the outskirts of Kharkiv toward the Russian border.

A man drives a GAZ-21 Volga car past a damaged building in Kharkiv on Thursday. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

But Moscow appears to have halted its retreat there, retaining a strip of territory along the frontier and preventing Ukrainian troops from cutting Russian supply lines that run east of the city to the Donbas.

Russian shelling killed at least nine civilians, including a five-month-old infant, and wounded 17 in Kharkiv, regional governor Oleh Synehubov said, as Russian forces dug in and maintained control of positions in villages to the north.

"It's loud here but it's home at least," said Maryna Karabierova, 38, as another blast could be heard nearby. She had returned to Kharkiv after fleeing to Poland and Germany earlier in the war. "It can happen at any time, at night, during the day: this is what life is here."

Russia did not immediately comment on the situation in Kharkiv. It has denied targeting civilians in what it calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine. 

The Donbas advance has been backed by massive 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.

Concerns about escalation

Western countries led by the U.S. have provided Ukraine with long-range weaponry, including M777 howitzers from Washington and Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Denmark.

Washington is even considering providing Kyiv with a rocket system that can have a range of hundreds of kilometres, and has held discussions with Kyiv about the danger of escalation if it strikes deep inside Russia, U.S. and diplomatic officials told Reuters.

"We have concerns about escalation and yet still do not want to put geographic limits or tie their hands too much with the stuff we're giving them," said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Pro-Russian troops are seen driving a tank along a street in Popasna, in Ukraine's Luhansk region, on Thursday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said during a question and answer session over Twitter that "without multiple launch rocket systems, we won't be able to push them back." He said that if Russia were to request a ceasefire, "we will think twice, three times before agreeing to it."

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Moscow expects Ukraine to accept its demands at any future peace talks. It wants Kyiv to recognize Russian sovereignty over the Crimea peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014, and the independence of separatist-claimed territory.

In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged stronger Western action against Russia to stop the war.

"The catastrophic unfolding events could still be stopped if the world treated the situation in Ukraine as if it were facing the same situation, if the powers that be did not play around with Russia but really pressed to end the war," Zelensky said.

Impacts of blockaded ports

Global attention this week has focused on Russia's blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports, which has halted exports from one of the world's biggest suppliers of grain and cooking oil. The United Nations says the blockade could worsen global hunger.

Western countries have demanded that Moscow lift the blockade. Russia says Western financial sanctions on Russia are to blame for the food crisis, although it has not explained how this is linked to its naval blockade of Ukrainian ports.

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"We categorically do not accept these accusations. On the contrary, we blame Western countries for taking actions that have led to this," Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, Russian and Ukrainian officials said Russia has started broadcasting its state television news in the ravaged port city of Mariupol and other locations it controls in Eastern Ukraine.

Russia's Ministry for Emergency Situations, or MChS, said it has launched "three mobile complexes for informing and alerting the population" that will be "broadcasting news for two hours in different parts of Mariupol."

Such mobile units also operate in the city of Volnovakha and the Lyman district of Ukraine's Donetsk province, broadcasting state news shows, "practical information" and cartoons for children, Russian state news agency Tass reported Thursday.

Petro Adnryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol's Ukrainian mayor, posted on his Telegram channel footage of MChS trucks with TV screens broadcasting Russian news shows to crowds of people in the Russian-occupied city.

"Yesterday, the occupiers launched three mobile propaganda cars and additionally installed 12 75-inch TVs in places of mass gathering — humanitarian aid distribution points, paperwork points and water access points," he wrote. "The practice of 'nothing to feed, feed lies' is gaining momentum."

Vladimir Krayushkin checks for pieces on his destroyed car next to a destroyed Russian tank placed on his yard, in Mala Rohan, Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

With files from The Associated Press