Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the battle for Sievierodonetsk “one of the most difficult” of the war, while highlighting its importance in the key eastern Donbas region, which Russia hopes to seize after failing early in its 3½-month invasion to topple his government or capture the capital, Kyiv.
"In many ways, the fate of our Donbas is being decided there,” Zelenskyy said in his Wednesday night video address to his countrymen.
Ukrainian forces claimed Thursday to have advanced in intense street fighting in Sievierodonetsk but said they needed more artillery to offset Russia's bigger arsenal. Both sides say they have inflicted large numbers of casualties.
Sievierodonetsk and its twin city, Lysychansk, on the opposite bank of the Donets River are the last Ukrainian-held parts of Luhansk province, a region Moscow said earlier this week it has 97% control of.
"They don't spare their people, they're just sending men like cannon fodder," he said. "They are shelling our military day and night."
The commander of Ukraine's Svoboda National Guard Battalion, Petro Kusyk, said in a television interview that Ukrainians were drawing Russians into street fighting to neutralize Russia's artillery advantage.
He said that Wednesday “was successful for us — we launched a counteroffensive, and in some areas, we managed to push them back one or two blocks. In others they pushed us back, but just by a building or two."
"Yesterday the occupiers suffered serious losses — if every day were like yesterday, this would all be over soon," he said.
Kusyk said his forces were suffering from a "catastrophic" lack of counter-battery artillery to fire back at Russia's guns. But he added, "Even without these systems, we are holding on fine. There is an order to hold our positions and we are holding them. It is unbelievable what the surgeons are doing without the proper equipment to save soldiers' lives."
Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said about 10,000 civilians are trapped inside the city — about a 10th of its prewar population.
To the west of Sievierodonetsk, Russia is pushing from the north and south, trying to trap Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region comprising Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk province, hitting Ukrainian-controlled towns in their path with artillery.
Meanwhile, Zelenskyy accused Russia of continuing to “blackmail the world with famine” by blockading Ukrainian ports and preventing exports of wheat, corn, vegetable oil and other food products.
In a videotaped message to the Time magazine gala released Thursday, Zelenskyy said Russia’s actions have left the world “on the brink of a terrible food crisis.”
"Millions of people may starve if the Russian blockade of the Black Sea continues," Zelenskyy said.
Russia has blamed the drop in exports on international sanctions and what it says are Ukrainian mines in the Black Sea.
Information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.