By Ken Bredemeier
Russian forces bombarded a chemical plant sheltering hundreds of soldiers and civilians in Ukraine’s eastern city of Sievierodonetsk on Sunday, but the Luhansk regional governor said the plant remains under Ukrainian control.
The governor, Serhii Haidai, called it “a lie” by pro-Russian separatists that 300 to 400 Ukrainian troops were trapped in the Azot facility along with several hundred civilians.
“The plant’s territory is simply being fired at,” Haidai said. “Fighting is underway on the outskirts of the city, in the streets directly near the plant.” He said a big fire broke out at the plant Saturday during the Russian shelling.
Russia claims it already controls 97% of the Luhansk province. But capturing the industrial city of Sievierodonetsk, with a prewar population of 100,000, remains crucial to Moscow’s broader goal of controlling the eastern Donbas region, which encompasses the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.
Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and Kyiv’s forces have been fighting pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region since then.
Leonid Pasechnik, the head of the separatist-declared Luhansk People’s Republic, acknowledged, “Sievierodonetsk is not completely 100% liberated. So, it’s impossible to call the situation calm in Sievierodonetsk, that it is completely ours.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in his nightly video address Saturday, said no one knows how long the war with Russia will continue, but said Ukraine’s forces have already defied initial assessments that Russia would quickly overrun eastern Ukraine when it turned its focus there after earlier failing to topple Zelenskyy or capture the capital, Kyiv, when it invaded Ukraine February 24.
“Remember how in Russia, in the beginning of May, they hoped to seize all of the Donbas?” the president said. “It’s already the 108th day of the war, already June. Donbas is holding on.”
But the fight for Sievierodonetsk remains difficult for Ukraine. Russian forces control much of the city and Haidai said they destroyed a second bridge to the city to cut off Ukraine’s ability to send in reinforcements. He predicted Russia “will throw all their reserves in order to capture the city” within the next day or two and to take control of a key highway, which is a vital supply route.
While Russia already claims vast control of the Luhansk region, a senior U.S. defense official said Saturday Moscow was likely to control it within weeks.
Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukraine’s main intelligence directorate, said that Russia has extended its planning for the war for another four months, through the end of October.
“According to our estimates,” he told Current Time, the Russian-language channel run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “Russia still has the potential to wage a long-term war against Ukraine.”
Skibitsky said Russia can keep up its current level of fighting for at least another year without needing to manufacture more weapons. “The situation is very difficult because the Russians have a significant superiority in the weapons available to them,” he added.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un expressed full support for the Russian invasion Sunday.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency said: “The Russian people achieved great successes in accomplishing the just cause of defending the dignity and security of their country, while braving all sorts of challenges and hardships.”
Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is visiting Kyiv to discuss Ukraine’s European Union candidacy, what Zelenskyy called “the final phase of the big diplomatic marathon.” A recommendation from the commission on Ukraine’s EU status is expected this week.