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Russia holds most of Severodonetsk, center of Donbas fight, official says

Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, seen during heavy fighting on May 30. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)
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Russian forces have gained control of most of Severodonetsk, an eastern Ukrainian city that is key to Moscow’s strategy in the region, a local leader said Tuesday evening.

Severodonetsk, in the Luhansk region, is one of the area’s last large cities still under partial Ukrainian control. Russian troops made quick progress toward the city center after days of shelling and ground assaults, and had consolidated their forces there by Wednesday morning, according to Ukrainian officials.

In an intelligence update Wednesday morning, the British Defense Ministry said that “over half of the town is likely now occupied by Russian forces, including Chechen fighters.”

Earlier Tuesday, Luhansk’s regional governor, Serhiy Haidai, said Russia controlled about half of the city. Hours later, he said “most of Severodonetsk” — perhaps as much as 70 percent — was under Russian rule.

“Almost 100 percent of the city’s critical infrastructure has been destroyed, 90 percent of the housing stock has been damaged, 60% of which critically, i.e. it cannot be restored,” Haidai wrote in a post on Telegram.

The city has been cut off from central sources of water, gas and electricity, he said, and near-constant shelling has made evacuation and humanitarian aid impossible. Haidai also said that Russia struck a nitric acid tank at a chemical plant, exposing residents to toxic fumes.

U.S. military officials have assessed that the coming weeks could bring a decisive phase in the war. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “the next several weeks will be very, very critical … for the outcome of this battle that’s shaping up.”

Looming ground battle is crucial phase in Ukraine, U.S. officials say

President Biden on Tuesday confirmed that the United States is sending medium-range advanced rocket systems to Ukraine after officials there requested such weapons, saying they were necessary to fight back against Russia in the country’s east.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Tuesday that Severodonetsk is “at the epicenter of the confrontation.”

“The situation in the Donbas direction is very difficult,” he said in his nightly address.

Russian troops have sought to surround the city and employ the same siege tactics they used in Mariupol, a southeastern port city that Moscow seized after weeks of brutal fighting. Haidai said Russia so far has been unable to encircle Severodonetsk. Heavy street fighting continues, he said.

Moscow has long signaled that it would try to capture the entire Donbas region, which includes Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk. If Russia can capture Severodonetsk, it would allow Russian leaders to claim a badly needed symbolic and territorial victory. The invasion has dragged on at a sluggish pace, slowed by a stronger-than-expected defense by Ukrainian troops and logistical and tactical failures.

Some military analysts have argued that Russia’s focus on Severodonetsk is a tactical error. The Institute for the Study of War, a D.C. think tank, said withdrawing from Severodonetsk and focusing finite military resources on more strategically important areas in the Kharkiv region would be “strategically sound, however painful.”

Zina Pozen contributed to this report.