Russia is likely to seize control of the entire Luhansk region of Ukraine within a few weeks, a senior U.S. defense official said, as Ukraine sustains heavy casualties and its supplies of ammunition dwindle.
Such a move would leave Russia short of its war aims of capturing all of Luhansk and Donetsk, which together make up the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. But it would still amount to a win for Russian forces and create a new de facto front line that could last for some time.
The Ukrainian cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, in Luhansk, are increasingly under duress and could fall to Russian forces within a week, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Fierce street fighting continued Saturday in Severodonetsk, a strategic city near the Donets river. Ukrainian forces control a third of the city, Mayor Alexander Stryuk told the BBC’s Ukrainian service.
Russian troops had not been able to make advances in the city’s south as of Friday, according to the latest intelligence update from Britain’s Defense Ministry, released Saturday. But they are combining artillery firepower with airstrikes to overwhelm Ukrainian defenses, the ministry said. Ukraine has called for faster deliveries of Western arms to its outgunned military.
Russia’s progress remains incremental overall and is coming at great cost to its own forces in terms of deaths and injuries, the U.S. defense official said.
Ukrainian forces have been fighting a very effective “mobile area defense,” in which Russia presses forward with its assault as Ukrainian forces fall back, only for Ukrainian forces to then rebound and take back land.
“The Ukrainians are doing a really good job here,” the U.S. official said.
Ukrainian troops pushed on with a counteroffensive in the Kherson region Saturday, retaking full control of the village of Tavriis’ke, the Kherson city council said in a Facebook post. The claim could not be independently verified.
Roughly 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the Russian invasion began, Oleksiy Arestovych, a military adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Saturday. At least 200 to 300 Ukrainian soldiers are being killed each day, he said, though he claimed Russia has suffered even greater losses since February. The Washington Post could not immediately verify the figures.
Zelensky said Saturday that it was “too late” to persuade Russia to end its invasion, calling on the world to avoid compromise with Moscow and take stronger action against Russia.
Zelensky’s comments, delivered via video at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security summit in Singapore, came a week after French President Emmanuel Macron sparked the ire of Ukraine and Eastern European allies when he said it was crucial not to “humiliate” Russia, to preserve the option of a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.
Paris appeared to be doing damage control Friday, with a presidential official telling reporters that France wants a Ukrainian victory and was unwilling to make concessions to Russia, Reuters reported.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Kyiv on Saturday on an unannounced visit. She was expected to discuss Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union with Zelensky. Ukraine hopes to obtain “candidate status,” an early step on what is usually a long path to E.U. membership. The commission is expected to make a recommendation on Ukraine’s status next week.
European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said Friday that the bloc’s legislative body supports Ukraine’s bid. But rifts have emerged between Central European countries and Baltic states, which support swift action on Ukraine’s candidacy, and Western European countries that are more reluctant to fast-track the process for a country with a history of corruption. Some E.U. diplomats said membership for Ukraine might be decades away.
Rare tension appeared to surface between the United States and Ukraine early in the weekend, after President Biden said Zelensky “didn’t want to hear it” when U.S. intelligence officials warned of a Russian attack before the Feb. 24 invasion.
Biden spoke about the United States’ commitment to Ukraine at a Democratic fundraising event in Los Angeles on Friday night, the Associated Press reported. “Nothing like this has happened since World War II,” he said.
Ukrainian officials rejected Biden’s account that his administration’s warnings had fallen on deaf ears in Kyiv. Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told the Ukrainian news website LIGA.net that Ukraine knew Russia was planning to invade but that uncertainty had remained over the scale of any attack.
The White House declined to comment.
Anxiety over the ramifications of the conflict for global food security continued to mount, with Germany’s agriculture minister accusing Russia of using starvation as a weapon.
Cem Özdemir decried the “particularly disgusting kind of warfare” on a German television news program. Moscow continues to blockade Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, preventing the export of millions of tons of grain to countries around the world.
Meanwhile, in the Russian-controlled city of Kherson, the first 23 Russian passports were presented to Ukrainian citizens in a ceremony Saturday, Russian state media reported. Kremlin-installed authorities have offered expedited Russian passports to residents of the Kherson area and Russia-controlled parts of the Zaporizhzhia region.
Ukrainian and Western officials fear Moscow intends to annex the captured areas. Over the past two years, Russia has distributed passports to Ukrainians living in separatist-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine in an apparent effort to create the conditions to justify the fresh invasion.
Russia has taken a number of other measures to exert administrative and cultural control over the Ukrainian regions it has occupied.
Russian officials are reportedly planning to train teachers in eastern Ukraine using Russian curriculums, according to the pro-Moscow Ukrainian news site Strana. And occupation authorities in Mariupol, the southern port city Russian forces captured last month, have begun introducing Russian textbooks into schools, Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the Ukraine-backed mayor of Mariupol, wrote on Telegram on Friday.
But occupation authorities still struggle to provide basic services, including medical care, to residents, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War reported Friday.
David L. Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine, Timothy Bella in Washington, Victoria Bisset and Ellen Francis in London, and Katerina Ang and Amy Cheng in Seoul contributed to this report.