Officials in Ukraine have admitted that Russia has the “upper hand” in fighting in the country’s east, as Ukrainian forces fell back from some of their positions in the Donbas region.
Amid reports that Lyman, the site of an important railway junction, had largely been taken by Russian forces, Ukraine’s general staff reported that Russian forces were also advancing on Sievierodonetsk, Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
The governor of Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, said just 5% of the region now remained in Ukrainian hands – down from about 10% little more than a week ago – and that Ukrainian forces were retreating in some areas.
“It is clear that our boys are slowly retreating to more fortified positions – we need to hold back this horde,” Haidai said. Hinting at further withdrawals, he said it was possible that troops would leave “one settlement, maybe two. We need to win the war, not the battle.”
Separately, a senior Ukrainian military official conceded at a briefing on Thursday that Russia had the upper hand in fighting in Luhansk. “Russia has the advantage, but we are doing everything we can,” Gen Oleksiy Gromov said.
Haidai said police in Lysychansk were burying the bodies of civilians in mass graves, with about 150 people having been buried in such a grave in one district.
If confirmed, Russia’s continuing advances in Lyman, which has been contested for a month, would make it easier for Russian forces to isolate the key city of Sievierodonetsk, which has been under relentless shelling for days.
According to accounts posted on social media, Lyman’s Ukrainian defenders had pulled back to the southern outskirts, although fighting was continuing, in particular around the railway sidings in the city.
Outside Sievierodonetsk, now the focal point of Moscow’s renewed offensive in Donbas, Haidai said fighting was “very difficult”.
Predicting the “coming week will be decisive”, Haidai said the city was being subjected to a “colossal amount of shelling” by Russian troops attempting to batter it into submission.
After failing to seize Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, or its second city, Kharkiv, in its three-month war, Russia is trying to take full control of Donbas, comprising two eastern provinces that Russia claims on behalf of separatists.
Moscow has poured thousands of troops into the region, attacking from three sides in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces holding out in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.
Their fall would leave the whole of Luhansk province under Russian control, a main aim of the Kremlin’s war.
Meanwhile the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, issued a bitter rebuke to the west for not doing enough to help Kyiv win the war.
Calling for help “without limits”, specifically shipments of heavy weaponry, he also criticised recent suggestions that a negotiated peace deal could include territorial concessions.
Zelenskiy has said Russian troops heavily outnumber Ukrainian forces in some parts of the east, and Kyiv has been trying unsuccessfully to arrange a prisoner swap with Moscow.
The heavy attrition on Ukrainian defenders in the east – where between 50 and 100 soldiers are dying every day, according to Zelenskiy – has also led to claims by Russia of large numbers of prisoners being taken.
Ukrainian prisoners of war held in the Russia-backed self-proclaimed people’s republics of Luhansk and Donetsk number about 8,000, the Luhansk official, Rodion Miroshnik, was quoted by Tass news agency as saying.
“There are a lot of prisoners,” Miroshnik said. “Now the total number is somewhere in the region of 8,000. That’s a lot, and literally hundreds are being added every day.” His claims could not be verified.
As Russia seeks to solidify its grip on the territory it has seized, Vladimir Putin signed a decree simplifying the process for residents of newly captured districts to acquire Russian citizenship and passports.
The Russian parliament scrapped the upper age limit for contractual service in the military on Wednesday, highlighting the need to replace lost troops.
In a late-night video address, Zelenskiy said of the changes to the Russian enlistment rules: “[They] no longer have enough young men, but they still have the will to fight. It will still take time to crush this will.”
Earlier in the day, the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told the World Economic Forum in Davos his country “badly” needed multiple-launch rocket systems to match Russian firepower in the battle for Donbas.
In the eastern town of Soledar, Ukraine’s salt manufacturing hub, the ground shook moments after Natalia Timofeyenko climbed out of her bunker on Wednesday.
“I go outside just to see people. I know that there is shelling out there but I go,” the 47-year-old said after a blast smashed apart a chunk of a salt mine where she worked with most of her friends and neighbours.
Agencies contributed to this report