Russian forces on Wednesday pounded Ukrainian-held twin cities in the Donbas region that is now the focus of the three-month war, threatening to shut off the last main escape route for civilians trapped in the path of their advance.
After failing to seize Ukraine’s capital Kyiv or its second city Kharkiv, Russia is trying to take full control of the Donbas, comprised of two eastern provinces Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
Russia has poured thousands of troops into the region, attacking from three sides in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces holding out in the city of Sievierodonetsk and its twin Lysychansk. Their fall would leave the whole of Luhansk province under Russian control, a key Kremlin war aim.
Police in Lysychansk are collecting bodies of people killed in order to bury them in mass graves, Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said. Some 150 people have been buried in a mass grave in one Lysychansk district, he added.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, said Russia’s “army is having some tactical success which is threatening to become an operational success in the direction of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk.”
Sievierodonetsk and Bakhmut, a town to the southeast, were in danger of being encircled, Arestovych said. “(It’s) possible that settlements will be abandoned, it’s possible we will have heavy losses.”
Families of people buried in mass graves will be able to carry out a reburial after the war, and police are issuing documents enabling Ukrainians to secure death certificates for loved ones, Gaidai said.
The main road out of Sievierodonetsk was being shelled, but humanitarian aid was still getting in, Gaidai said in an earlier statement. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian troops “heavily outnumber us” in some parts of the east.
As Moscow seeks to solidify its grip on the territory it has seized, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree simplifying the process for residents of newly captured districts to acquire Russian citizenship and passports.