POKROVSK, Ukraine — Russian and Ukrainian troops traded blows in fierce close-quarter combat Sunday in an eastern Ukrainian city as Moscow’s soldiers, supported by intense shelling, attempted to gain a strategic foothold to conquer the region. Ukraine’s leader also made a rare frontline visit to Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, to assess the strength of the national defense.
In the east, Russian forces stormed Sievierodonetsk after trying unsuccessfully to encircle the strategic city, Ukrainian officials said. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the situation there as “indescribably difficult,” with a relentless Russian artillery barrage destroying critical infrastructure and damaging 90% of the buildings.
“Capturing Sievierodonetsk is a principal task for the occupation force,” Zelensky said, adding that the Russians don’t care about casualties.
The city’s mayor said the fighting had knocked out power and cellphone service and forced a humanitarian relief center to shut down because of the dangers.
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The deteriorating conditions raised fears that Sieverodonetsk could become the next Mariupol, a city on the Sea of Azov that spent nearly three months under Russian siege before the last Ukrainian fighters surrendered.
Sievierodonetsk, located 143 kilometers (89 miles) south of the Russian border, has emerged in recent days as the epicenter of Moscow’s quest to capture all of Ukraine’s eastern industrial Donbas region. Russia also stepped up its efforts to capture the nearby city of Lysychansk, where civilians rushed to escape persistent shelling.
The two eastern cities span the strategically important Siverskiy Donetsk River. They are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province, which makes up the Donbas together with the adjacent Donetsk region.
Zelensky, meanwhile, visited soldiers in Kharkiv, where Ukrainian fighters pushed Russian forces back from nearby positions several weeks ago.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky awards a servicewoman as he visits the war-hit Kharkiv region on May 29, 2022.
Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP
“I feel boundless pride in our defenders. Every day, risking their lives, they fight for Ukraine’s freedom,” Zelensky wrote on the Telegram messaging app after the visit.
Russia has kept up its bombardment of the northeastern city from afar, and explosions could be heard shortly after Zelensky’s visit. Shelling and airstrikes have destroyed more than 2,000 apartment buildings in the city since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, according to the regional governor, Oleh Syniehubov.
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In a video address later Sunday, Zelensky praised Kharkiv regional officials but said he had fired the regional head of the country’s top security agency, the SBU, for his poor performance. In the wider Kharkiv region, Russian troops still held about one-third of the territory, Zelensky said.
After failing to seize Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Russia is focused on occupying parts of Donbas not already controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
Russia turns its focus to Donbas
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told French TF1 television Sunday that Moscow’s “unconditional priority is the liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” adding that Russia sees them as “independent states.”
In Luhansk, constant Russian shelling has created what provincial governor Serhiy Haidai called a “severe situation.”
“There are fatalities and wounded people,” he wrote on Telegram. On Saturday, he said, one civilian died and four were injured after a Russian shell hit a high-rise apartment building.
The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank based in Washington, questioned the Kremlin’s strategy of assembling a huge military effort to take Sieverodonetsk, saying it was proving costly for Russia and would bring few returns.
“When the battle of Sieverodonetsk ends, regardless of which side holds the city, the Russian offensive at the operational and strategic levels will likely have culminated, giving Ukraine the chance to restart its operational-level counteroffensives to push Russian forces back,” the institute said late Saturday.
Firemen douse the flames at a gypsum manufactory plant after shelling in the city of Bakhmut at the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on May 27, 2022, on the 93rd day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images
In Mariupol on Sunday, an aide to its Ukrainian mayor alleged that after Russia’s forces gained complete control of the city, they piled the bodies of dead people inside a supermarket. The aide, Petro Andryushchenko, posted a photo on the Telegram messaging app of what he described as a “corpse dump” in the occupied city. It showed bodies stacked alongside closed supermarket counters.
“Here, the Russians bring the bodies of the dead, which were washed out of their graves during attempts to restore the water supply, and partially exhumed. They just dump them like garbage,” he wrote.
It was not immediately possible to verify his claim.
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Regions across Ukraine were pummeled overnight by renewed Russian airstrikes. On the ground in the eastern Donetsk region, fighters battled back and forth for control of villages and cities.
The Ukrainian army reported heavy fighting around Donetsk, the provincial capital, as well as Lyman to the north, a small city that serves as a key rail hub in the Donetsk region. Moscow claimed Saturday to have taken Lyman, but Ukrainian authorities said their fighters remained engaged in combat in parts of the city.