Russia 'chewing through ground' in Ukraine as it encircles Severodonetsk

US says territory changing hands every day in battle for eastern Donbas

A bridge that once connected Severodonetsk with the city of Lysychansk on the opposite bank of a river in Ukraine. AFP
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Russian forces are "chewing through ground" in Ukraine and closing in on capturing the city of Severodonetsk, a significant target in its push to seize the Donbas region, western officials said.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Ukraine's successful defence of Kyiv in the early weeks of the war should not lull western countries into thinking Russia was defeated.

"I’m afraid that Putin at great cost to himself and Russian military is continuing to chew through ground in Donbas, he’s continuing to make gradual, slow but I’m afraid palpable progress," he told Bloomberg.

A US defence official said in a briefing that Russian troops had “essentially encircled” Severodonetsk and seized the city’s north-east, but said fighting continued despite efforts to stop Ukraine resupplying its forces.

The official said Russia was making “incremental gains” across the Donbas, with territory changing hands every day as Russia tries to exploit the numerical superiority of its armed forces.

Britain’s Defence Ministry said in a regular intelligence update that pressure was mounting on Severodonetsk but that Ukraine “retains control of multiple defended sectors”.

It previously said the capture of the “Severodonetsk pocket” would effectively put the Luhansk region, one of the breakaway areas recognised as independent by Moscow, under Russian occupation.

Serhiy Gaidai, the head of the Ukrainian administration in Luhansk, said five civilians were killed in Severodonetsk in 24 hours.

Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the pro-Kremlin separatists in the region, said the territory claimed by the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic had been “liberated by almost 95 per cent”, Russian news agency Interfax reported.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an overnight address that Russia was trying to burn Donbas cities “to ashes” and that the offensive in the east threatened to “make the region uninhabited”.

“In cities and communities closer to the Russian border, in Donetsk and Luhansk, they gather everyone they can to fill the place of those killed and wounded in the occupation contingent,” Mr Zelenskyy said.

“All this, including the deportation of our people and the mass killings of civilians, is an obvious policy of genocide pursued by Russia.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a call to Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Thursday, claimed that his forces were making “efforts to establish peaceful life” in occupied parts of the Donbas.

He accused Ukraine of foiling efforts to open humanitarian corridors out of blockaded Black Sea ports ― deflecting the allegation by European leaders that Russia is engineering a food crisis by stopping Ukraine’s grain exports.

Britain said Russia had moved Soviet-era T-62 tanks from deep storage into the areas it is trying to occupy near the Black Sea coast.

It said the T-62s were likely to be vulnerable to today’s anti-tank weapons and said their presence “highlights Russia’s shortage of modern, combat-ready equipment”.

However, the US briefing was told that Russia still has “a significant amount of the majority of their capability left to them” despite heavy losses during the three-month war.

Updated: May 27, 2022, 12:29 PM