Ukraine ignored a Russian ultimatum to surrender the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk on Wednesday as NATO defense ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss sending more heavy weapons to replenish Kyiv's dwindling stocks.
Sievierodonetsk, now largely in ruins, has for weeks been the main focal point of the war. Russia had told Ukrainian forces holed up in a chemical plant there to stop "senseless resistance and lay down arms" from Wednesday morning, pressing its advantage in the battle for control of eastern Ukraine.
Russia had told Ukrainian forces holed up in a chemical plant in the shattered city to stop "senseless resistance and lay down arms" from Wednesday morning, pressing its advantage in the battle for control of eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine is calling for an increase in Western heavy weapons after Russia committed the bulk of its firepower to the eastern Donbas region, a topic expected to feature prominently at a meeting of NATO defense ministers on Wednesday in Brussels.
Ukraine says more than 500 civilians, including 40 children, remain alongside soldiers inside the Azot chemical factory, sheltering from weeks of almost constant Russian bombardment.
Russian-backed separatists, on the other hand, say there are up to 1,200 civilians holed up in the shelters of the Azot chemical plant.
"About 1,000 to 1,200 civilians of Sievierodonetsk may still be on the territory of the Azot chemical plant," Rodion Miroshnik, an official in the Russian-backed self-styled separatist administration of the Luhansk People's Republic, said on Telegram.
British intelligence has confirmed that Russian forces have taken control of most of the city during a month of heavy fighting, with defenders holding the industrial zone.
Fighters should "stop their senseless resistance and lay down arms" from 8 a.m. Moscow time (0500 GMT), Mikhail Mizintsev, head of Russia's National Defence Management Centre told the Interfax news agency.
Civilians would be let out through a humanitarian corridor, Mizintsev said.
The Azot bombardment echoes the earlier siege of the Azovstal steelworks in the southern port of Mariupol, where hundreds of fighters and civilians took shelter from Russian shelling. Those inside surrendered in mid-May and were taken into Russian custody.
Shelling on Azot was so heavy that "people can no longer stand it in the shelters, their psychological state is on edge," said regional governor Serhiy Gaidai of Luhansk, one of two eastern provinces Moscow claims on behalf of separatist proxies.
"Our forces are holding their ground against attacks from three sides, defending Sievierodonetsk and stopping the enemy from advancing into Lysychansk," he said, referring to the twin cities on opposite banks of the Siverskyi Donets river.
"Our forces are holding their ground against attacks from three sides, defending Sievierodonetsk and stopping the enemy from advancing into Lysychansk."Serhiy Gaidai
The Russian assault on Luhansk's Sievierodonetsk - a city of barely more than 100,000 people before the war - is currently the focal point of what has been called the battle of the Donbas.
Kyiv has said 100-200 of its soldiers are killed each day, with hundreds more wounded.
Ukraine is still trying to evacuate civilians after Russian forces destroyed the last bridge linking Sievierodonetsk with the Ukrainian-held Lysychansk.
Russian forces have shelled Lysychansk, which lies on higher ground on the western bank of the Siverskyi Donets river.
Russia has claimed its airforce destroyed, among other things, four M777 155-mm howitzers provided to Ukraine by the US. They also claimed that missile strikes destroyed an ammunition warehouse for weapons donated by NATO alliance countries in Ukraine's western Lviv region, according to the Russian Defence Ministry.
The ground has changed hands several times over the past few weeks, and Ukrainian officials have given little indication they will back down.
But with all the bridges leading from Sievierodonetsk now destroyed, Ukrainian forces risk being encircled.
"We have to hold strong ... The more losses the enemy suffers, (the) less strength it will have to pursue its aggression," President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address late Tuesday.
Russia gives no regular figures of its own losses but Western countries say they have been massive as President Vladimir Putin seeks to force Kyiv to cede full control of two provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk, collectively known as the Donbas.
Momentum in Sievierodonetsk has shifted several times over the past few weeks - with Russia concentrating its overwhelming artillery firepower on urban districts to obliterate resistance, then sending in ground troops vulnerable to counter-attacks.
Elsewhere in the Donbas, Ukraine says Russia plans to assault Sloviansk from the north and along a front near Bakhmut to the south.
In Donetsk province, critical infrastructure including homes, schools, hospitals and markets have been attacked over the past week, United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.
"This has made life nearly unbearable for people who are also facing severe water shortages, and at times are unable to leave their homes for days on end due to the fighting," Dujarric said.
"This has made life nearly unbearable for people who are also facing severe water shortages, and at times are unable to leave their homes for days on end due to the fighting."Stephane Dujarric
To the south, Ukraine's military said it had conducted three air strikes against troop concentrations, fuel depots and military equipment in the Kherson region.
Ukrainian officials have renewed pleas for the United States and its allies to send more and better artillery as well as tanks, drones and other heavy weapons.
In the meantime Germany announced that they will supply three MARS II multiple rocket launchers to Ukraine, Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said on Wednesday in Brussels, adding that the training of Ukrainian troops would begin in the coming weeks
The weapons will come from Bundeswehr inventories, she told reporters after talks between nearly 50 countries to discuss and coordinate military assistance to Ukraine that took place on the sidelines of a NATO meeting.
"It is very much about enabling the Ukrainians to transition from Soviet-era, from old equipment to more modern NATO standard equipment," he told reporters ahead of a meeting of the alliance's defense ministers in Brussels.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is leading the meeting on Wednesday on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministerial. It is the third time the group of nearly 50 countries are meeting to discuss and coordinate assistance to Ukraine.
Washington has committed about $4.6 billion in security assistance since Russia's Feb. 24 invasion, including longer-range rocket systems, drones and advanced artillery.
But Zelenskiy said Ukraine does not have enough anti-missile systems to protect its cities, adding that "there can be no justification in delays in providing them."
While Western sanctions have hit Russia's economy hard, resulting in global shortages of oil and grain have sent energy and commodity prices soaring. And a speech that Putin is set to deliver on Friday at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum will be closely watched.
The grain situation
The conflict has sent grain prices soaring and Western sanctions against Russia have driven up oil prices. Ukraine's agriculture minister told Reuters the invasion would create a global wheat shortage for at least three seasons by keeping much of the Ukrainian crop from markets.
Russia said it had offered "safe passage" for Ukraine grain shipments from the country's Black Sea ports but said it was not responsible for establishing the corridors, as Turkey suggested ships could be guided around sea mines.