By BERNAT ARMANGUÉ and YURAS KARMANAU
BAKHMUT, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian forces battling Russian troops in a key eastern city appeared on the cusp of retreat Wednesday, though the regional governor insisted they are still fighting “for every centimeter” of the city.
The urban battle for Sievierodonetsk testified to the painstaking, inch-by-inch advance by Russian forces as they close in on control of the entire Luhansk region, one of two that make up the industrial heartland known as the Donbas.
After a bungled attempt to overrun Kyiv in the early days of the war, Russia shifted its focus to the region of coal mines and factories. The Donbas has been partly controlled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014, making supply lines shorter and allowing Moscow to tap those separatist forces in its offensive there.
But Russia also faces Ukraine’s most battle-hardened troops, who have been fighting the separatists for eight years there.
The result is a slog in which both sides exchange artillery barrages that seemingly inflict heavy losses, but neither appears to have the clear momentum.
“Ukraine has been pursuing a policy of flexible defense, giving ground where it makes sense to do so instead of holding on to every inch of the territory,” said Keir Giles, a Russia expert at London think tank Chatham House.
But he cautioned against drawing grand conclusions from the daily give and take, since Russian President Vladimir Putin could decide at any time that his objectives have been met — and the West could also pressure Ukraine to accept their losses.
The grinding war has left thousands dead and driven millions from their homes — and its consequences are felt in many countries where it is driving up the price of food since critical shipments of Ukrainian grain are trapped inside the country.
After meeting with Russia’s foreign minister Wednesday, Turkey’s top diplomat said he thought a plan to create a secure shipping corridor to resume exports of that grain was “feasible.”
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai acknowledged the difficulties in Sievierodonetsk on Wednesday, telling The Associated Press that “maybe we will have to retreat, but right now battles are ongoing in the city.”
“Everything the Russian army has — artillery, mortars, tanks, aviation — all of that, they’re using in Sievierodonetsk in order to wipe the city off the face of the Earth and capture it completely,” he said.
Earlier, on the Telegram messaging app, he said Ukrainian forces were still fighting “for every centimeter of the city.”
Haidai indicated they could pull back to positions that are easier to defend. The city across the river, Lysychansk, sits on higher ground. He has previously suggested forces could have to pull back in order to avoid being surrounded.
Sievierodonetsk, which had a prewar population of 100,000, became the administrative capital of the region after the city of Luhansk was taken by separatists in 2014.
Both it and Lysychansk are wedged between Russian forces to the east, north and south — in the small portion of the Luhansk region that Russia has not yet claimed control of. Moscow also appears to hold about half of the Donetsk region that rounds out the Donbas.
Valentyna Tsonkan, an elderly resident of Lysychansk, described the moment when her house came under attack.
“I was lying on my bed. The shrapnel hit the wall and went through my shoulder,” she said as she received treatment for her wounds this week.
Meanwhile, to the north, Russian shelling of the northern Kharkiv region killed five people and wounded 12 more over the past 24 hours, regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said Wednesday.
The Russian military said Wednesday that Moscow used “air-launched, high-precision missiles” to hit an armor repair plant near Kharkiv. There was no confirmation from Ukrainian officials of such a plant being hit.
Before Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian officials said Russia controlled some 7% of the country, including the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, and areas held by the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces held 20% of the country.
While Russia has superior firepower, the Ukrainian defenders are entrenched and have shown the ability to counterattack.
“The absolutely heroic defense of the Donbas continues,” Zelenskyy said Tuesday in his nightly video address.
Speaking earlier to a Financial Times conference, Zelenskyy insisted on Ukraine’s need to defeat Russia on the battlefield but also said he is still open to peace talks with Putin.
But a former senior U.S. intelligence officer said the time isn’t right.
“You’re not going to get to the negotiating table until neither side feels they have an advantage that they could push,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.
Turkey has sought to play a role in negotiating an end to the war — but talks it hosted earlier in conflict yielded no progress. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Wednesday his country is “much more optimistic” that Russia and Ukraine can be persuaded to return to talks after he met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. But he provided no details why.
Cavusoglu is also trying to help negotiate a plan to get Ukrainian agricultural products out of the country and said he thought a plan to create a secure shipping corridor was possible.
But it’s not clear if any progress was made since there was no Ukrainian representative at the meeting.
Russia has said shipping could resume if Ukraine removes mines from the area near its Black Sea port of Odesa. It has pledged not to use the demined corridor to attack Ukraine — but Kyiv has voiced doubt about that promise. Moscow also says it wants to check the ships coming into Odesa for weapons.
The war has helped fuel a food crisis in developing countries, since Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but much of that flow has been halted by the war and a Russian blockade.
An estimated 22 million tons of grains are sitting in silos in Ukraine.
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Oleksandr Stashevskyi, John Leicester and David Keyton in Kyiv, Ukraine; Andrew Katell in New York; and Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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