By JOHN LEICESTER and HANNA ARHIROVA Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine — Russia claimed Tuesday it has occupied large swaths of eastern Ukraine after a relentless, weekslong barrage and the recent deployment of more troops.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow’s forces have control of 97% of the Luhansk region.
Russia has declared that fully capturing the entire Donbas, which includes the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and where Russia-backed separatists have fought the Ukrainian government since 2014, is its main goal in the invasion of its neighboring country which began Feb. 24. The region recently has been bearing the brunt of the Russian onslaught.
It’s not clear whether Russia would try to expand its offensive elsewhere in Ukraine if it takes the Donbas. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Monday that if the West provides Ukraine with long-range rockets capable of reaching Russian territory, Moscow will respond by pressing its offensive deeper into Ukraine.
Early in the war, the Russian troops also took control of the entire Kherson region and a large part of the Zaporizhzhia region in the south. Russian officials and their local appointees have mulled plans for those regions to either declare their independence or be folded into Russia.
But while the Kremlin’s forces have superior firepower, the Ukrainians defenders — among them the country’s most well-trained forces — are entrenched and have shown the capability to counterattack.
Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, claimed that Russian forces have seized the residential quarters of Sievierodonetsk and are fighting to take control of an industrial zone on its outskirts and the nearby towns.
Sievierodonetsk, the administrative center of the Luhansk region, has recently been the focus of the Russian offensive. Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk are the only two Donbas cities holding out against the Russian invasion, which is being helped by local pro-Kremlin forces.
Shoigu added that the Russian troops were pressing their offensive toward the town of Popasna and noted that they have taken control of Lyman and Sviatohirsk and 15 other towns in the region.
Popasna is a town with a pre-war population of 20,000 located about 30 kilometers (nearly 20 miles) south of Sievierodonetsk.
Shoigu said 6,489 Ukrainian troops have been taken prisoner since the start of the military action in Ukraine, including 126 over the past five days.
Moscow is deploying troop reinforcements in eastern Ukraine as a Russian artillery barrage aimed to grind down Ukrainian defenses, a Ukrainian official said.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak urged his people not to be downhearted about the battlefield reverses.
“Don’t let the news that we’ve ceded something scare you,” he said in a video address. “It is clear that tactical maneuvers are ongoing. We cede something, we take something back.”
Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai conceded that Russian forces control the industrial outskirts of Sievierodonetsk.
“Toughest street battles continue, with varying degrees of success,” Haidai told The Associated Press. “The situation constantly changes, but the Ukrainians are repelling attacks.”
Moscow’s strategy has suffered numerous setbacks, however, since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, including a failed attempt to take Kyiv, the capital.
Moscow’s forces also kept up its artillery barrage of Lysychansk. Haidai said Russian troops shelled a local market, a school and a college building, destroying the latter. Three wounded people were sent to hospitals in other parts of Ukraine, he said.
“A total destruction of the city is underway, Russian shelling has intensified significantly over the past 24 hours. Russians are using scorched earth tactics,” Haidai said.
In all, Ukrainian forces had repelled 10 Russian attacks over the previous 24 hours, according to Haidai. His report couldn’t be independently verified.
Ukraine is receiving weapons and ammunition from the West to help fend off relentless Russian attacks. That assistance has become a target for Russian artillery and warplanes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy acknowledged that his country’s military is outgunned and still needed Western help to face down the Russians.
“We are inferior in terms of equipment and therefore we are not capable of advancing,” Zelenskyy said at a Financial Times Global Boardroom conference Tuesday
While insisting on Ukraine’s need to defeat Russian on the battlefield, Zelenskyy said he was still open to peace talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the Financial Times.
He also bemoaned that Western sanctions “have not really influenced the Russian position,” the FT reported.
Russia claimed Tuesday its forces took out two artillery systems given by the United States and a howitzer supplied by Norway.
Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the Russian artillery barrage destroyed other Ukrainian equipment in the country’s east while the Russian air force hit Ukrainian troops and equipment concentrations and artillery positions.
Konashenkov’s claims couldn’t be independently confirmed.
The war brought a standoff Tuesday between the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog and Ukrainian authorities over a power plant in southern Ukraine.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s director Rafael Mariano Grossi wants to visit to the Zaporizhzhia plant, the largest in Europe, to help maintain its safety and security after being taken by Russian troops in early March.
But Energoatom, the Ukrainian state company overseeing the country’s nuclear power plants, said in a blunt statement that Grossi wasn’t welcome. It said his planned tour was “yet another attempt to legitimize the occupier’s presence there.”
Amid fears on international markets of a global food crisis due to the war, the Kremlin says Ukraine needs to remove sea mines near its Black Sea port of Odesa to allow essential grain exports to resume from there.
Asked about a possible deal to allow grain shipments from Odesa, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Tuesday that Ukraine’s removal of the mines would allow commercial vessels to dock in Odesa. He noted that the Russian military would need to check those ships to make sure they don’t carry weapons.
He added that after they are loaded with grain, Russia will help escort the ships to international waters.