The battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Syevyerodonetsk could be decisive for the fate of the Donbas, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, as Russian forces concentrated their artillery power on the strategically important industrial hub, forcing the Ukrainian defenders to retreat to the outskirts of the city.
“According to the results of this day, the 105th day of the full-scale war, Syevyerodonetsk remains the epicenter of the confrontation in Donbas,” Zelenskiy said in a video message on June 8, adding that Ukrainian forces are defending their positions and inflicting significant losses on the enemy.
“This is a very fierce battle, very difficult. Probably one of the hardest throughout this war. I am grateful to everyone and everyone who defends themselves in this direction. In many ways, the fate of our Donbas is being decided there right now,” Zelenskiy said.
Luhansk governor Serhiy Hayday said on Telegram that Russian forces “control a large part of Syevyerodonetsk” but said the industrial zone of the city “is still ours.” Fighting continues in the streets, he said.
“The Russians are destroying everything,” Hayday said in a televised announcement, “They are firing tanks and artillery at residential buildings.”
Syevyerodonetsk has been the focus of fighting for weeks. It became the target of Russia’s assault after its forces were repelled from other parts of Ukraine following the February invasion.
Ukrainian special forces launched a counteroffensive days ago and cleared almost half of the city, but it made no sense for them to stay when Russia started leveling the area with shelling and air strikes, Hayday was quoted as saying in the RBC-Ukraine report.
Hayday said that Lysychansk, which is across the river from Syevyerodonetsk, was also being shelled.
Lysychansk remains fully under the control of the Ukrainian army but is under “powerful and chaotic” shelling, he said on Telegram, accusing Russian forces of deliberately targeting hospitals and humanitarian aid distribution centers.
“The destruction is enormous,” he said.
The accounts of Hayday and Zelenskiy could not be immediately verified.
The British Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence update on June 9 that simultaneously with its assault on Syevyerodonetsk, the Russian military stepped up efforts to advance to the south of the city of Izium, located some 130 kilometers northwest of Syevyerodonetsk.
“Russia likely seeks to regain momentum in this area in order to put further pressure on Syevyerodonetsk, and to give it the option of advancing deeper into the Donetsk Oblast,” British intelligence said.
On the diplomatic front, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks on June 8 in Turkey with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on unblocking grain exports from Ukraine.
Supplies of grain from Ukraine, a major world exporter, have been drastically reduced due to Russia’s blockade of the country’s ports and the targeted bombardment of warehouses as part of its war against Ukraine, launched in late February.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated on June 8 that any possibility of grain shipments would be conditioned on the lifting of international sanctions against Russia for its unprovoked invasion on Ukraine.
Western governments have ruled out such a move, prompting many of them to accuse Russia of weaponizing the global food-supply crisis.
In Ankara, Cavusoglu voiced support for a safe maritime sea corridor, but Lavrov said the onus was on Ukraine to demine its ports as a precondition for safe shipment.
Lavrov said after the talks that Russia would not “abuse” its naval advantage in the Black Sea if Ukraine’s ports were demined.
Ukraine, which was not represented at the Ankara meeting, says Russia’s promise not to use safe shipping corridors to attack Odesa is not credible.
Ukrainian Ambassador to Turkey, Vasyl Bodnar, said no specific agreements came out of the talks as both sides set conditions.
“The Turkish side has received information from the Russian side about their position, and now we are waiting for communication between the Ukrainian side and the Turkish side to find common ground,” Bodnar said.
He accused the Russian side of playing “stupid games” and demanded the Russians withdraw and unblock the ports.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel told the European Parliament in Strasbourg that Putin was preventing Ukraine from fulfilling its traditional role as a major supplier of agricultural commodities, including wheat, to world markets.
“This is a cold, callous, and calculated siege by Putin on some of the most vulnerable countries and people in the world,” von der Leyen told the EU lawmakers on June 8. “Food has become now part of the Kremlin’s arsenal of terror and we cannot tolerate this.”
She added that 20 million tons of grain are currently trapped in Ukraine.
Michel told the 27-nation assembly, “Russia is using food as a weapon of war, stealing grain, blockading ports, and turning farmlands into battlefields.”