Ukrainian defenders fought desperately to withstand a major Russian offensive in the Donetsk region, with the enemy laying down heavy artillery fire to pave the way for ground forces to advance, a senior Ukrainian official said on Wednesday.
After Russian forces on Sunday took control of Lysychansk, the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Luhansk, Ukraine’s military braced for an assault on Donetsk, with the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk both in the Russian line of fire.
Donetsk and Luhansk comprise the Donbas, the industrialized eastern part of Ukraine that has seen the biggest battle in Europe for generations.
There was heavy fighting at the edge of the Luhansk region, its governor Serhiy Haidai told Ukrainian television, saying Russian regular army and reserve forces had been sent there in an apparent effort to cross the Siverskiy Donets River.
Haidai earlier said Russian forces were engaged in widespread shelling as they launched their assault on Donetsk.
Russia says it wants to wrest control of the entire Donbas from Ukraine on behalf of Moscow-backed separatists in two self-proclaimed people’s republics.
On Tuesday, Russian forces struck a market and a residential area in Slovyansk, killing at least two people and injuring seven, local officials said.
A Reuters reporter at the scene saw yellow smoke billowing from an auto supplies shop, and flames engulfing rows of market stalls as firefighters tried to extinguish the blaze.
Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said Slovyansk and nearby Kramatorsk had suffered heavy shelling overnight. “There is no safe place without shelling in the Donetsk region.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, calling it a “special military operation” to de-militarize the country, root out nationalists and protect Russian speakers.
Kyiv and the West say Russia is waging an unprovoked, imperial-style land grab in its fellow ex-Soviet republic, and accuse the invaders of war crimes, which Moscow has denied.
Lysychansk, once a city of a 100,000 people, lies in ruins. Buildings are scorched and holed by shells, cars up-ended and streets strewn with rubble, testament to the ferocity of the battle it endured.
Tatiana Glushenko, a 45-year-old Lysychansk resident, told Reuters there were people still sheltering in basements and bomb shelters, including children and elderly.