Russian troops have swarmed into Sievierodonetsk, as their artillery continues to pound parts of the city where Ukrainian defenders have mounted a desperate rearguard action.
The Russian destruction of a bridge has left stranded civilians with just one remaining bridge to escape across a river to the neighbouring city of Lysychansk, which was also being shelled but was still in Ukrainian hands.
Hundreds of civilians in Sievierodonetsk were sheltering in the city’s Azot chemical plant, creating a scenario similar to the fall of the southern port city of Mariupol, where hundreds of people were trapped for weeks in the Azovstal steelworks.
“Russians continue to storm the city, having a significant advantage in artillery they have somewhat pushed back the Ukrainian soldiers,” said Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the Luhansk region.
“The Russians are destroying quarter after quarter,” he said.
Russian forces have taken most of Sievierodonetsk, having pulverized parts of the city in one of the bloodiest assaults since they invaded Ukraine on 24 February.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly video address on Sunday that Russia was trying to pour military reserves into the eastern Donbas region.
“The key tactical goal of the occupiers has not changed: they are pressing in Sievierodonetsk, severe fighting is ongoing there – literally for every metre,” Mr Zelensky said.
Mr Zelensky added attacks that resulted in child casualties had created a lasting image of Russia for the rest of the world.
“These very facts will underscore the way in which Russia is seen by the world,” he said.
“Not Peter the Great, not Lev Tolstoy, but children injured and killed in Russian attacks,” he said, in an apparent reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks last week comparing Moscow’s military campaign to Russian emperor Peter the Great’s 18th century conquest of lands held by Sweden.
Russia has denied targeting civilians.
Mr Putin launched what he called a “special military operation” to restore Russian security and “denazify” its southern neighbour nearly four months ago. Ukraine and its Western allies call this a baseless pretext for a war which has raised fears of wider conflict in Europe.
In the biggest assault on a European country since World War Two, more than five million people have fled Ukraine, thousands have died and cities left in rubble. The war has sparked a global energy and food crisis by disrupting gas, oil and grain supplies from Russia and Ukraine.
After failing to take the capital Kyiv, Moscow turned its attention to expanding control in the Donbas, where pro-Russian separatists have held territory since 2014.
In Sievierodonetsk, the last pocket of Ukrainian land held in the strategic Luhansk region, Ukrainian troops were fighting street by street to hold onto the city, with both Ukrainian and Russian forces suffering heavy losses, Roman Vlasenko, head of Sievierodonetsk district administration, told local TV.
“Our boys are holding on but the conditions are tough,” he said. Mr Vlasenko said the city had been without communications and normal services for a month.
Russian shelling had hit the Azot chemical plant area three times, said Luhansk governor Gaidai.
“About 500 civilians remain on the grounds of the Azot plant in Sievierodonetsk, 40 of them are children. Sometimes the military manages to evacuate someone,” he said.
The destruction of a bridge over the Siverskyi Donets River linking Sievierodonetsk to Lysychansk has left just one of three bridges still standing, he said.
“If after new shelling the bridge collapses, the city will truly be cut off. There will be no way of leaving Sievierodonetsk in a vehicle,” Mr Gaidai said, noting the lack of a ceasefire agreement or agreement on evacuation corridors.
Mr Gaidai said Lysychansk was also being shelled by Russian forces, and a six-year-old child had been killed there.
In Western Ukraine, Russian cruise missiles destroyed a large depot containing US and European weapons in the Ternopil region, Russia’s Interfax agency reported.
Ternopil’s governor said rockets fired from the Black Sea at the city of Chortkiv had partly destroyed a military facility and injured 22 people. A local official said there were no weapons stored there.
On Sunday, the Ukrainian general staff said on Facebook that General Valeriy Zaluzhny, the head of Ukraine’s armed forces, had spoken to General Mark Milley, the top US military officer, and reiterated a request for more heavy artillery systems.
Moscow has criticised the United States and other nations for sending Ukraine weapons, threatening to strike new targets if the West supplied long-range missiles.