Putin’s troops ‘amassing’ for major offensive as bloody battle enters new twist

Ukraine: Commanders in Donbas face 'tough call' says Clarke

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Russian forces appear focused on the big city Sievierodonetsk, in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region, with the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) saying troops could scale up fighting in order “to maintain their pace after committing a significant portion of personnel, artillery, aviation, and logistics to the front”.

As the fourth month of a military conflict launched by Putin on February 24 dawns, the war has narrowed to a 75-mile-wide span of land in the heart of the Donbas.

There, Moscow is making progress toward a handful of key territories, with Ukrainian officials admitting the Kremlin’s men have the upper hand in fighting.

Sievierodonetsk, in the Luhansk Oblast, is the easternmost city still under Ukrainian control. It has been under relentless shelling for days.

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A senior Ukrainian military official, General Oleksiy Gromov, said: “Russia has the advantage, but we are doing everything we can.”

Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, echoed the general’s stark assessment.

He said on Thursday just 5 percent of the region now remained in Ukrainian hands – down from about 10 percent little more than a week ago.

Ukrainian forces were retreating in some areas, he added.

Mr Haidai said: “It is clear that our boys are slowly retreating to more fortified positions – we need to hold back this horde.”

Suggesting further withdrawals could be expected, he said Ukrainian servicemen might leave “one settlement, maybe two”.

In a seeming glimpse of hope, he added: “We need to win the war, not the battle.”

His remarks followed claims by the regional government on Wednesday that artillery barrages fired by Russian forces approaching from three sides had destroyed water and electrical supplies as well as driven civilians into hiding in underground shelters.

At least six people had been killed within a day, they added.

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Kyiv’s comments came amid reports that Lyman, the site of an important railway junction, had largely been captured by Russian forces after a month of fighting.

According to accounts posted on social media, Ukrainian defenders had pulled back from Lyman to the southern outskirts. However, the battle continued, particularly around the city’s railway sidings.

Taking Lyman would make it easier for the Russians to isolate Sievierodonetsk and that, in turn, would help Putin’s army to trap Ukrainian forces in the neighbouring town of Lysychansk and a string of other towns and villages.

The fall of these would leave the whole of the Luhansk province under Russian control – a main goal of Putin’s war.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) said in an intelligence update on Wednesday: “Russia’s capture of the Severodonetsk pocket would see the whole of Luhansk oblast [region] placed under Russian occupation.”

Providing a glimpse into the severity of the fighting, Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, a Ukrainian defence ministry spokesman, said: “Now we are observing the most active phase of the full-scale aggression which Russia launched against our country.

“The situation on the eastern front is extremely difficult because the fate of this country is perhaps being decided right now.”

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