A senior Ukrainian military official conceded at a briefing on Thursday that Russia had the upper hand in fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region at present.
“Russia has the advantage, but we are doing everything we can,” Gen. Oleksiy Gromov said.
Gromov also said Ukraine had observed Russia moving Iskander missile systems to Belarus’s western Brest region, which Gromov said raised the possibility of new missile strikes on west Ukraine.
Russia has poured thousands of troops into its assault in the east, attacking from three sides in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. The cities’ fall would bring nearly the whole of Luhansk province under Russian control.
Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk province, also acknowledged that Ukrainian forces were retreating, but said the last road out of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, which straddle the Siversky Donets river, remained outside Russian control.
In an interview posted on social media, Gaidai said “around 50” Russian soldiers had reached the highway linking Lysychansk to Ukrainian-held Bakhmut, and “managed to gain a foothold for some time. They even set up some kind of checkpoint there.”
“The checkpoint was broken, they were thrown back. That is to say, the Russian army does not control the route now, but they are shelling it,” he added.
WATCH | Ukrainian towns pummelled by Russian shelling:
“From the first day, the entire territory, all the positions of the military, have been shelled. Many of our fortified structures were destroyed,” Gaidai said. “It is clear that our boys are slowly retreating to more fortified positions — we need to hold back this horde.”
He hinted at further Ukrainian withdrawals, saying it was possible troops would leave “one settlement, maybe two. We need to 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 principal objective as capturing the east.
Moscow calls its actions since Feb. 24 a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of what it calls anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West. Ukraine and the West say Russia launched an unprovoked war of aggression.
Few towns in Donbas escaping assault: Ukraine
Reuters journalists operating 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 red flag bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle at the door.
Drone footage filmed by Reuters journalists of the nearby abandoned battlefield showed scores of craters pockmarking a green field surrounded by wrecked buildings. Pro-Russian fighters were milling about in trenches.
Ukrainian interior ministry adviser Vadym Denisenko told a briefing the situation was very tense as 25 Russian battalions attempted to surround the Ukrainian forces. A full-strength battalion has around 800 troops.
“Everything now is focused on the Donbas.”
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.
4 killed in Kharkiv shelling
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.
The Russian 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.
While the battle is concentrated in the southeast, Kharkiv in the northeast reported fatalities on Thursday. At least four civilians were killed and several were wounded in Russian shelling in the city, the regional governor said.
“The occupiers are shelling the regional centre again,” Kharkiv region Governor Oleh Synehubov wrote on the Telegram messaging app. He urged residents to go to shelters.
Germany’s Scholz says West remains committed
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 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.
WATCH | How the war in Ukraine is affecting food supply in Africa, Middle East:
“We categorically do not accept these accusations. On the contrary, we blame Western countries for taking actions that have led to this,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday.
Peskov said Moscow expects Ukraine to accept its demands at any future peace talks. It has demanded Kyiv accept Russian sovereignty over the Crimea peninsula Moscow seized in 2014 and recognize the independence of separatist-claimed territory.
In a speech to dignitaries in Davos, Switzerland, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Russian President Vladimir Putin must not be permitted to dictate the terms of any peace agreement.
“There will be no dictated peace,” Scholz said. “Ukraine will not accept this, and neither will we.”
Meanwhile, a proposal to condemn the regional health emergency triggered by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine will come before a World Health Organization (WHO) assembly on Thursday, prompting a rival resolution from Moscow that makes no mention of its own role in the crisis.
The original proposal, backed by the United States and more than 40 other countries, condemns Russia’s actions but stops short of immediately suspending its voting rights at the UN health agency. The Russian document, backed by Syria, which echoes the language of the first text, will also be decided on.
Both resolutions express “grave concerns over the ongoing health emergency in and around Ukraine,” but only the Western-led proposal says that the emergency is “triggered by the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine.”
Britain’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva Simon Manley called Russia’s resolution “a cynical attempt to distract, disrupt and confuse” on Twitter.