Ukrainian forces are engaged in intense street fighting with Russian troops in the key eastern city of Syevyerodonetsk despite Moscow’s sustained and indiscriminate artillery fire, Ukrainian officials say, calling again for the speedy delivery of the advanced weapons systems pledged by the West.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the outcome of the “fierce” battle for Syevyerodonetsk will be decisive for the fate of the Donbas.
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.
“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 were 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.
In Kyiv, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on June 9 that Ukraine was losing up to 100 soldiers every day in frontline fighting against Russian troops and hundreds more were being wounded.
“The situation at the front lines is difficult. Every day we have up to 100 of our soldiers killed and up to 500 wounded,” he said, adding that the Russians were paying an even higher price.
“The Kremlin continues to press by sheer mass, stumbles, faces strong resistance, and suffers huge casualties,” Reznikov said on Facebook.
Speaking from Syevyerodonetsk, commander Petro Kusyk said Ukrainian forces were drawing the Russians into street fighting to neutralize their artillery advantage.
“Yesterday was successful for us. We counterattacked and in some areas we managed to push them back one or two blocks. In others they pushed us back, but just by a building or two,” Kusyk said in a televised interview, adding that the Russians had suffered “serious losses.”
Kusyk said Ukrainian forces were suffering from a “catastrophic” lack of artillery firepower to counter Russia’s guns. Getting such weapons would be a game changer, he said.
Kusyk’s call for the quicker delivery of advanced artillery was echoed by the head of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Hayday, who said that Ukraine could retake Syevyerodonetsk within days if it had long-range Western artillery systems.
The United States and Britain earlier this month announced they were providing Kyiv with long-range precision artillery systems that can strike targets up to 80 kilometers away. But the delivery of the systems and the training of Ukrainian personnel is expected to take weeks.
“As soon as we have long-range artillery to be able to conduct duels with Russian artillery, our special forces can clean up the city in two to three days,” Hayday said in an interview distributed on his official social-media channels.
“The Russians are destroying everything,” Hayday said in a televised announcement, “They are firing tanks and artillery at residential buildings.”
Syevyerodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said on June 9 that around 10,000 civilians were still trapped inside the city — around one-tenth of its prewar population.
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.
In the south, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on June 9 it had captured new ground in a counterattack in the Kherson region.
In the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol, hundreds of bodies are being found in the debris of destroyed buildings, the local authorities say — but they suggest Russian forces are beginning to end the searches.
Petro Andryushchenko, a mayoral aide in the Sea of Azov port city, said on the Telegram app that the bodies were being taken to a morgue, landfills, and other places.
At least 21,000 Mariupol civilians were killed during the weekslong Russian siege, Ukrainian authorities have estimated.
On the diplomatic front, Zelenskiy on June 9 called for Russia to be expelled from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), blaming Moscow for spurring the global grain crisis by invading his country.
Supplies of grain from Ukraine 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.
Ukraine’s Black Sea ports usually export millions of tons of grain each year but have been blocked since Moscow’s late February invasion.
The blockade has sent food prices soaring and sparked warnings of famine in the Middle East and Africa.
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.
“There can’t be any discussion on prolonging Russia’s membership in the FAO,” Zelenskiy told delegates at a Paris meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development by video link.
“What is there for Russia to do [in the FAO] if they are causing hunger for at least 400 million, or potentially more than a billion people?” Zelenskiy added.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel have also warned that Putin was preventing Ukraine from fulfilling its traditional role as a major supplier of agricultural commodities to world markets.