Ukrainian forces have been pushed back by a Russian bombardment in the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk and now only control its outskirts, the region's governor told the RBC-Ukraine media outlet on Wednesday.
Ukrainian special forces launched a counteroffensive days ago and cleared almost half of the city, but it made no sense for them to stay when Russia started levelling the area with shelling and air strikes, the official, Serhiy Gaidai, was quoted as saying.
"...Our (forces) now again control only the outskirts of the city. But the fighting is still going on, our (forces) are defending Sievierodonetsk, it is impossible to say the Russians completely control the city."Serhiy Gaidai
Ukrainian troops managed to hold off against a Russian push to capture the city of Sievierdonetsk in the Donbas region, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said Wednesday morning as the Russian invasion stretches into its 105th day.
Russia has turned its focus to the Donbas region since its forces were defeated on the outskirts of Kyiv in March.
Despite these efforts, it is unlikely that either side has managed to make significant progress in the battle over the city, according to the latest UK defense intelligence update.
In addition, Ukrainian forces were able to defend the towns of Ustinivka and Toshkivka, according to the latest Ukrainian operational update.
But while Russia is remaining on the offensive in central Donbas, its flanks have been put on the defensive in the wake of ongoing Ukrainian counter-attacks.
Ukrainian strikes have made some gains in southwestern Kherson Oblast, which Russia had nearly completely seized early in the war, and managed to secure a foothold on the Ingulets River's east bank, the UK intelligence update said.
The struggle to maintain an offensive push while also keeping a defensive line is something both Russia and Ukraine are facing along the over 500 kilometers occupied zone, according to the UK intelligence update.
Referendum for Zaporizhzhia to join Russia this year
A referendum will be held sometime in 2022 on whether Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Oblast, largely occupied by Russian forces, will join Russia, Russian media reported Wednesday, citing a member of the pro-Russian administration of the city.
Ukraine and its Western allies regard any planned referendums in occupied areas as illegal and proof that Russia's true aim is territorial conquest.
Already, the first batch of Russian passports for Zaporizhzhia residents has been prepared, with at least 500 residents set to receive them on Russia Day, June 12, RIA reported.
Ukrainian intelligence reports have for weeks warned that Russia planned to hold a referendum for these areas to formally join Russia. This is similar to what occurred in Crimea in 2014, in a referendum widely criticized and not recognized by the international community.
Satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies MAXR.N collected on Monday showed significant damage in Sievierodonetsk and nearby Rubizhne.
Reuters could not immediately verify the reports.
Luhansk Oblast Governor Serhiy Gaidai said on Wednesday that Lysychansk, which is across the river from Sievierodonetsk, was also being shelled. A local man was killed on a central street on Tuesday and a woman was hospitalized, he added.
In Sloviansk, about 85 km (53 miles) to the west of Sievierodonetsk, women with small children lined up to collect aid on Tuesday while other residents carried buckets of water across the city as they prepared for advancing Russian forces.
Most residents have fled but authorities say around 24,000 remain in the city, in the path of an expected assault by Russian forces regrouping to the north.
"I am going to remain, I will not leave without my husband. He works here. That's what we decided, we are staying," said Irina, who did not provide her surname, as she waited with a child in a stroller outside an aid distribution center.
"It is tough, but it is easier when one is at home."
Ukraine's second biggest city, Kharkiv, was also hit by shelling on Tuesday, and the local mayor said one person was killed. The northeastern city had been quieter in recent weeks.
Viacheslav Shulga, an employee at a pizzeria in the north of Kharkiv that was hit, said there had been hopes the restaurant could reopen soon.
"Everything is destroyed. We are removing equipment, there will be no business here for now," he said.
In southern Ukraine, another major battleground in the war, authorities said Russian attacks on agricultural sites including warehouses were compounding a global food crisis that has stirred concerns of famine in some developing countries.
Pulling back from Sievierdonetsk
Ukrainian troops holding out in the ruins of Sievierodonetsk, came under renewed heavy assault on Wednesday from Russian forces who see the capture of the industrial city as key to control of the surrounding Luhansk region.
Ukraine's military may have to pull back to stronger positions in the embattled eastern city of Sievierodonetsk, but they will not give up the city and fierce fighting raged there on Wednesday, the region's governor said.
Ukraine expects Russia to step up its bombardment of Sievierodonetsk and to mount a huge offensive where Moscow is focusing all its efforts, the governor, Serhiy Gaidai, said on television.
"Fighting is still going and no one is going to give up the city even if our military has to step back to stronger positions. This will not mean someone is giving up the city - no one will give up anything. But it's possible (they) will be forced to pull back," he said.
The days-long battle for the industrial city, once home to some 106,000 people before Moscow invaded Ukraine on, has emerged as pivotal, with Russia focusing its offensive might in the hope of achieving one of its stated aims - to fully capture surrounding Luhansk province on behalf of Russian-speaking separatists.
"We expect the amount of shelling and bombardments of Lyshychansk and Sievierdonetsk to increase many times, huge offensives in the Sievierdonetsk and Popasna direction and attempts to once again cross the Siverskyi Donets River to create a bridgehead and further develop the offensive," he said.
Belarus is beefing up its military
Meanwhile, in neighboring Belarus, the Belarusian army is continuing to work on its forces, according to the Ukrainian military.
This follows an announcement from the Belarusian Defense Ministry that the army will be undergoing drills simulating a transition of peacetime to wartime.
The announcement, made by the Defense Ministry's press service Telegram and reported on by Pravda, said that it will see these military exercises take place on the Ukraine-Belarus border as well as on Belarus's western borders.
This also followed Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko announcing an operational command for troops on the Ukrainian border, the creation of a militia and the purchase of Iskander missiles and S-400 air defense systems from Russia, Pravda reported.
Prisoners sent to Russia
More than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered in the city of Mariupol have been transferred to Russia for investigation, Tass news agency reported on Tuesday, citing a Russian law enforcement source.
If confirmed, the news could undermine already troubled peace talks between the two sides.
Kyiv is seeking the handover of all the estimated 2,000 defenders from the Azovstal plant in a prisoner swap, but Russian lawmakers have demanded that some of the soldiers be put on trial.
"More than 1000 people from Azovstal were brought to Russia. Law enforcement organs are working with them closely," Tass quoted the source as saying. It did not give details about what might happen next.
The source also told TASS that later on, more Ukrainian prisoners would be sent to Russia.
Ukraine launching 'Book of Executioners' to detail war crimes
Ukraine is launching a "Book of Executioners," a system to collate evidence of war crimes Kyiv says were committed during Russia's occupation, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday.
Ukrainian prosecutors say they have registered more than 12,000 alleged war crimes involving more than 600 suspects since the Kremlin started its offensive on Feb. 24.
"Next week, a special publication is to be launched — 'The Book of Executioners' — an information system to collect [a] confirmation of data about war criminals, criminals from the Russian army," Zelensky said in a video address.
Zelensky said this would be a key element in his longstanding pledge to bring to account Russian servicemen who have committed what Ukrainian authorities have described as murders, rape and looting.
"These are concrete facts about concrete individuals guilty of concrete cruel crimes against Ukrainians," Zelensky said.
He cited the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where investigators found what they say is evidence of mass executions.
Russia says it has gone out of its way to avoid targeting civilians in its "special military operation" in Ukraine. Russian officials have specifically dismissed pictures of events in Bucha as "fabrications" staged by Ukrainian authorities after Russian forces left the town at the end of March.
Russian forces have continued to suffer severe casualties throughout the ongoing invasion.
So far, Russia has lost 31,500 soldiers, 212 aircraft, 178 helicopters, 125 cruise missiles, 3,429 armored personnel vehicles, 1,393 tanks, 96 anti-aircraft systems, 703 artillery pieces, 213 MLRSs, 559 drones, 13 ships, 2,406 vehicles and fuel tanks and 53 pieces of special equipment, according to the Ukrainian military.
However, the exact number of losses is impossible to verify.
President Zelensky's office said two people were killed and two wounded in the Luhansk region in the past 24 hours, five civilians were wounded in the Donetsk region, and four killed and 11 wounded in the Kharkiv region.