Ukraine live updates: Finland and Sweden push for NATO membership

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Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — Russian forces launched an assault on a key Ukrainian defensive position near two strategically important eastern cities on Sunday, Ukrainian military officials said, bringing them one step closer to encircling thousands of Ukrainian troops.

Ukrainian forces sent reinforcements to frontline positions around Toshkivka, a small town southeast of the Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk metropolitan area. The Russians ‘had success’ but were eventually repelled, a Ukrainian official said, but the fighting highlighted Ukraine’s faltering defense of two of the last towns in the Donbass region’s Luhansk province which are not yet under Russian control.

If Moscow’s forces succeed in cutting off Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, it could pin down thousands of Ukrainian fighters defending the cities, deliver a hard-won military victory for Moscow, and bring its forces closer to President Vladimir V. Putin’s goal of seizing of the whole eastern Ukrainian Donbass. Region.

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Ukrainian main battle tanks and several Grad multiple launch rocket systems were seen heading towards Toshkivka and other parts of the frontline on Sunday afternoon, smoke billowing from their chassis and treads traveling up the hinterland roads, probably in an effort to repel Russian forces. the.

A crew member, when asked if his tank was heading towards the Ukrainian defenses in this area, smiled and nodded.

As Russian troops moved to encircle the two towns amid weeks of street fighting and artillery duels, Ukrainian forces fell back and now hold only a small part of Sievierodonetsk. This includes a chemical plant where hundreds of civilians are believed to have taken refuge and which has come under heavy Russian bombardment in recent days, Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Lugansk, said on Sunday.

Fighting continues elsewhere in the region. At the South West, Ukrainian military officials said Sunday that their troops had successfully repelled an offensive on the eastern outskirts of Berestove. The Ukrainian army general staff added that Russia was planning another assault on Sloviansk, about 80 km west of Sievierodonetsk.

The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately comment on Toshkivka, but said earlier on Sunday that its forces had seized Metolkin, a town just east of Sievierodonetsk. Russian state news agency Tass said many Ukrainian fighters had traveled there, although it was not possible to independently verify these claims.

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Toshkivka served as an important part of a defensive wall in what came to be called the Sievierodonetsk pocket. Located in the Donbass region – an area of ​​rolling plains, agricultural fields and mining towns, where Moscow has committed the bulk of its military power in recent months – the pocket is about three-quarters surrounded by Russian forces. This left only a thin gap to the west where Ukrainian troops come and go using village roads that are often the target of Russian artillery fire.

And Russian troops are slowly advancing to close the gap.

If Ukrainian forces are unable to reinforce the front line at Toshkivka, it means that Russian forces will have tightened the noose from the south, reducing the maneuvering area of ​​Ukrainian troops in the pocket. It would also allow Russian forces to threaten the few remaining Ukrainian supply routes to Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said earlier this month that the future of much of eastern Ukraine would be decided in the battle for these two cities.

Ukraine’s decision to hold their ground in the street fights in Sievierodonetsk was a gamble from the start. His strategy had been to fight at point-blank range into the city, where Russia could not assert its vast artillery advantage.

But the city’s soldiers, and those who support them in the nearby town of Lysychansk, on the west bank of the Siversky Donets River, daily risk being surrounded.

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Russian artillery lines blasted Ukrainian roads, bridges and positions with what Ukrainian troops estimate at thousands of shells daily.

As risky as it was, Ukraine’s strategy succeeded in pinning down Russian forces and inflicting casualties, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine’s former defense minister, said in an interview on Sunday.

“Right now, the main goal is to use the window of opportunity we have to completely exhaust the Russians in Donbass,” he said.

Moreover, he added, it is better to fight now than to retreat and fight later at another site further west.

“If we move, they will move,” Mr Zagorodnyuk said. “We would have to meet them somewhere. It’s not like Putin just wants Sievierodonetsk. They will continue until they are stopped.

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