Ukrainian forces reversed a Russian advance in Severodonetsk and recaptured around 20% of the strategic eastern city in the past two days, the governor of Luhansk province said.
Moscow, meanwhile, said Ukrainian forces were withdrawing from the city after suffering heavy casualties.
Heavy fighting raged on Saturday in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk – the last two towns still under Russian control more than 100 days after Moscow invaded its western neighbor.
Governor Serhiy Haidai said Russian forces had suffered serious defeats and were blowing up bridges over the Siverskyi Donets River to prevent Ukraine from bringing in military reinforcements and delivering aid to civilians in Severodonetsk.
“At this moment, our soldiers pushed them back. They [the Russians] suffer huge losses,” Haidai said during a live TV broadcast on Saturday. “The Russian army, as we understand, is throwing all its efforts, all its reserves in this direction.”
Al Jazeera could not independently confirm the claims.
Both sides suffered punitive casualties in street-by-street battles for the Soviet-era factory town, where roads were riddled with craters and wrecked vehicles.
If Severodonetsk falls, neighboring Lysychansk would be the last city Russia must capture to gain full control of Luhansk Province, which together with Donetsk Province constitutes Donbass.
The region has become the center of the Russian invasion as President Vladimir Putin seeks to regain momentum after a failed attempt to take the capital Kyiv.
The Russian army said on Saturday that Ukrainian soldiers were withdrawing from the city.
“Some units of the Ukrainian army – having suffered critical losses in the fighting for Severodonetsk – are retreating towards Lysychansk,” the defense ministry said in a statement.
He added, however, that some Ukrainian fighters were still in the city and that the Ukrainian army was seeking to contaminate the area to “delay” the Russian military operation.
“The Ukrainian authorities – having realized that it was impossible to resist further and cling to the industrial zone of Severodonetsk – ordered a mixed tactical unit to exploit the reservoirs containing nitrate and nitric acid in the Azot plant,” the ministry said.
“Nothing to come back to”
Ukraine’s military said on Saturday that Russia had used artillery to carry out “assault operations” in Severodonetsk, but Russian forces withdrew and Ukrainian troops held positions inside the city.
Ukrainian troops still held an industrial zone in Severodonetsk, Haidai said, a scenario reminiscent of Mariupol, where a steel plant was the eastern port city’s last obstacle.
On Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said there had been “some progress” in the battle for Severodonetsk but gave no details.
In the city of Sloviansk, 80 km from Severodonetsk, the mayor urged residents to evacuate in the face of intense Russian bombardment, with water and electricity cuts.
“The situation is getting worse,” student Gulnara Evgaripova told AFP news agency as she boarded a minibus to leave the city.
Ekaterina Perednenko, a paramedic, said: “I’m afraid there’s nothing to come back to.”
Russia reinforces its troops
Ukraine’s military said Russia reinforced its troops and used artillery to carry out “assault operations” in Severodonetsk. But he said Russian forces withdrew after failed attempts to advance into the nearby town of Bakhmut and cut off access to Severodonetsk.
Haidai said in a social media post that four people were killed in Russian attacks in the area on Saturday, including a mother and a child.
Meanwhile, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Russia now controls more than 90% of Luhansk and is expected to take it back completely within the next two weeks.
Haidai said progress over the past two days shows Ukraine may be able to repel the Russian attack during that time, the time frame for the arrival of new advanced Western weapons.
“As soon as we have a large amount of Western long-range weapons, we will push back their artillery … and the Russian infantry will leave,” he said in reference to new arms aid announced by Western allies.
Russian troops now occupy about 20% of Ukrainian territory and Moscow has imposed a blockade on its Black Sea ports.
“The combined use of air strikes and artillery has been a key factor in Russia’s recent tactical successes in the region,” the UK Ministry of Defense said in an assessment. He warned that after launching so many guided missiles, Russia was using unguided missiles which “almost certainly caused significant collateral damage and civilian casualties”.
“Victory will be ours”
As Russian forces focus on taking Donbass in the east, Ukrainian troops have launched counterattacks in an attempt to regain territory in the south of their country.
After seizing most of the Kherson and Dnipropetrovsk regions, as well as the port city of Mariupol, Moscow installed local administrators, offered residents Russian passports and took other steps to consolidate its grip on the occupied areas.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Russian officials and troops were facing growing resistance among the local population and “an increase in partisan activity in southern Ukraine”.
The institute cited accounts on Russian Telegram channels of threats against residents who were issued Russian passports.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “some results have been achieved”, pointing to the “liberation” of certain areas from what he called the “pro-Nazi armed forces of Ukraine”.
But the Ukrainian president remained defiant in a video message marking 100 days of war.
“We have already defended Ukraine for 100 days,” he said. “Victory will be ours!”
Tens of thousands of people have died, millions have been uprooted from their homes and the world economy has been disrupted by the war that Putin started on February 24.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who sought to maintain a dialogue with Putin throughout the war, said it was vital that Russia was not humiliated so that when the fighting stopped a diplomatic solution could be found.
Ukraine said on Saturday it was pointless to negotiate with Russia until Moscow’s forces were pushed back as far as possible towards Ukraine’s borders.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reacted to Macron’s comments by saying such calls “only humiliate France” and any country taking a similar position.
“It is Russia that humbles itself. We would all do better to focus on how to put Russia in her place. It will bring peace and save lives,” Kuleba said.