Ukraine on Wednesday pleaded with Western governments to move quickly to send heavy weapons to bolster its faltering defenses as Russia said it would evacuate civilians from a frontline chemical plant.
The industrial city of Severodonetsk is under intense bombardment as Russia focuses its offensive on the Donbass region in a bid to secure parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Moscow forces have stepped up efforts to cut off beleaguered Ukrainian troops remaining in the city and said they would open a corridor to allow civilians to flee the besieged factory.
Western defense ministers, including US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, were meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels under pressure to step up arms deliveries to Ukraine.
“Brussels, we are waiting for a decision,” Mykhaylo Podolyak, senior aide to President Volodymyr Zelensky, said on social media, warning that Ukraine’s artillery is outgunned 10 to one.
“Every day I get a message from defenders: ‘We are holding on, just say: when to expect arms?’” he said.
But NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, who hosted the meeting of around 50 allies and partners, warned it would take time to get the latest equipment into service with trained Ukrainian troops.
“Ukraine is really in a very critical situation and therefore there is an urgent need to step up,” Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of a meeting of NATO ministers.
The West has dumped weapons into Ukraine, but Kyiv complains that it has only received a tenth of what it needs and is demanding heavier weapons.
Stoltenberg said the allies had moved from sending older equipment to delivering “more advanced long-range air defense systems, more advanced artillery, heavier weapons.”
But he added “it will also take some time to prepare Ukrainians to use and operate these systems.”
He said NATO members, such as the Netherlands, planned to offer training to Ukrainian forces to make them aware of the new incoming heavy guns.
Stoltenberg said alliance leaders are expected to agree a “comprehensive assistance package” for Ukraine at a summit in Madrid later this month.
About 500 civilians are taking refuge in the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk, according to the head of the city administration.
The Russian Defense Ministry announced that a humanitarian corridor would be established for evacuations from the factory on Wednesday, saying it was “guided by the principles of humanity”.
Evacuees would be transported to the town of Svatovo in the breakaway Lugansk region, Moscow said, urging those resisting the plant to end their “senseless resistance”.
There was no response from Kyiv to the announcement, and in a video address on Tuesday Zelensky lamented “painful losses” in the ongoing fighting.
“But we have to stay strong. It’s our nation… It’s crucial to hang on in the Donbass. The Donbass is the key to deciding who will dominate in the coming weeks.”
After its February invasion, Russia was pushed back from Kyiv, prompting it to focus its offensive on Donbass, a predominantly Russian-speaking region held in part by pro-Kremlin separatists since 2014.
Capturing Severodonetsk became a key objective, as it would open the road to Sloviansk and another major city, Kramatorsk.
NATO calls for heavy weapons
Kyiv forces face an increasingly desperate situation in Severodonetsk, with Ukrainian authorities estimating that the Russians now control up to 80% of the city as they seek to encircle it.
From a high position in Lysychansk, an AFP team saw black smoke rising from the Azot factory in Severodonetsk and another area of the city.
The Ukrainian army uses the heights to exchange fire with Russian forces fighting for control of Severodonetsk, just across the water.
Lysychansk pensioner Valentina sat on the porch of her ground-floor apartment, where she lives alone, two canes in hand.
“It’s scary, very scary,” said the 83-year-old former farmhand.
“Why can’t they finally agree, for God’s sake, shake hands?”
Along the road from Lysychansk to Kramatorsk, Ukrainian forces transported more weapon systems to the front, while specialized vehicles transported tanks for repair.
In the town of Novodruzhesk, near Lysychansk, there was still a smell of burning and smoke from houses that had been destroyed by fire from the weekend shelling.
“It’s not safe anywhere, it just depends on the time of day, that’s all,” said a soldier standing outside a fire station with a skull logo on his sleeve.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, said it had not received a request from London to intervene in the case of two Britons sentenced to death by pro-Moscow separatist authorities in eastern Ukraine.
Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, along with Moroccan Brahim Saadun, were found guilty of acting as mercenaries for Ukraine by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.