KYIV: Ukraine will fight to recover all its territory occupied by Russian forces, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Tuesday (Jun 7), as his troops battled street-to-street in Sievierodonetsk in one of the bloodiest land battles of the war.
"We have already lost too many people to simply cede our territory," he said by video link at an event hosted by Britain's Financial Times newspaper.
Stalemate was "not an option", he said. "We have to achieve a full deoccupation of our entire territory."
Zelenskyy's remarks were a forceful response to suggestions that Ukraine must cede territory to Russia to end the war, now in its fourth month.
French President Emmanuel Macron said in a recent interview that it was important not to "humiliate" Moscow, comments interpreted in Ukraine as implying it must accept some Russian demands.
Asked about Macron's comments, Zelenskyy said: "We are not going to humiliate anyone, we are going to respond in kind."
As he spoke, Ukrainian troops in the ruins of Sievierodonetsk were trying to hold onto gains Kyiv had claimed to have made in a surprise counter-offensive that shifted momentum there last week.
The fight for the small eastern industrial city has emerged as a pivotal battle, with Russia focusing its offensive might in the hope of achieving one of its stated aims - to fully capture the surrounding Luhansk province on behalf of separatist proxies.
The situation inside the city could not be independently verified, but Ukrainian officials appear to have backed away from claims to have regained control of as much as half of it. After saying for days that Ukrainian forces had recaptured substantial territory, Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said on Monday the situation had again deteriorated.
Other Ukrainian officials spoke of heavy battles underway. Moscow has said its own troops have been advancing.
"HOLDING THE LINE"
The city's mayor, Oleksandr Stryuk, told Ukrainian television on Tuesday Ukrainian forces were doing all they could to hold their ground: "Our armed forces have strengthened their positions and are holding the line."
Another local official, Roman Vlasenko, said Ukrainian forces were in control of the city's industrial zone and the Azot chemical plant. Reuters could not independently verify his statement.
Ukrainian officials had said their forces staged the surprise counter-attack last week, driving the Russians from a swath of the city centre.
Before that, Russia had seemed on the verge of encircling Ukraine's garrison in Luhansk, attempting to cut off the main road to Sievierodonetsk and its twin city Lysychansk across the Siverskiy Donets river. On Sunday Zelenskyy made a surprise visit to Lysychansk, personally demonstrating that Kyiv still had an open route to its troops' redoubt.
Russia launched its invasion on Feb 24 saying it aimed to "disarm" and "denazify" Ukraine, but its troops were defeated on the outskirts of Kyiv in March.
It has since ramped up an assault on the east, demanding Kyiv recognise its territorial claim to the Crimea peninsula, and the claims of its separatist proxies in Luhansk and Donetsk, southeastern provinces together known as the Donbas.
Russia has been pressing from three main directions - east, north and south - to try to encircle the Ukrainians in the Donbas.
In its nightly update, the Ukrainian military said two civilians were killed in Russian shelling in the Donbas and Russian forces had fired at more than 20 communities, using artillery and air strikes.
In Druzhkivka, in the Ukrainian-held pocket of Donetsk province, residents were picking through the wreckage of houses obliterated by the latest shelling.
"Please help, we need materials for the roof, for the house, there are people without shelter," shouted Nelya, outside her home where the roof had been shredded. "My niece, she has two small children, she had to cover one of her children with her own body."
Nearby, Nadezhda picked up a children's pink photo album and kindergarten exercise book from the ruins of her house, and put them on a shelf somehow still standing in the rubble.
"I do not even know where to start. I am standing here looking but I have no idea what to do. I start crying, I calm down, then I cry again."
"TIME TO LEAVE"
Britain's defence ministry said on Tuesday that Russia was still trying to cut off Sievierodonetsk by advancing from the north near Izium and from the south near Popasna. It said Russia's progress from Popasna had stalled over the last week, while reports of shelling near Izium suggested Moscow was preparing a new offensive there.
"Russia will almost certainly need to achieve a breakthrough on at least one of these axes to translate tactical gains to operational level success and progress towards its political objective of controlling all of Donetsk Oblast," it said.
The Donetsk regional governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko, told Ukrainian television there was constant shelling along the front line, with Russia attempting to push towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the two biggest Ukrainian-held cities in Donetsk.
Efforts were under way to evacuate remaining residents: "People are now understanding, though it is late, that it is time to leave."
Ukraine is one of the world's biggest exporters of grain, and Western countries accuse Russia of creating risk of global famine by shutting Ukraine's Black Sea ports. Moscow denies responsibility for the food crisis, blaming Western sanctions.
Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the Russian-occupied Ukrainian ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol were ready to resume grain exports. Ukraine says any such shipments from territory seized by Moscow would amount to illegal looting.
Zelenskyy said Kyiv was gradually receiving "specific anti-ship systems", the best way to break a Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports.
The Kremlin said that for exports to resume from Ukrainian-held ports, Kyiv must first clear them of mines. Russia could then inspect and escort ships to international waters, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.