Fierce fighting has erupted on the streets of the eastern Ukraine city of Sievierodonetsk, with Kyiv’s forces trying desperately to fight off the Russian onslaught.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy characterized the situation as "indescribably difficult." In a televised speech, he described capturing Sievierodonetsk as "a fundamental task for the occupiers" and said Ukraine was doing all it could to protect the city from a Russian takeover.
Russian troops have entered the city, power and communications have been knocked out, and "the city has been completely ruined," Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
"The number of victims is rising every hour, but we are unable to count the dead and the wounded amid the street fighting," the mayor said. Striuk said 12,000 to 13,000 civilians remain in the city that once had 100,000 residents. They are sheltering in basements and bunkers to escape the Russian assault.
Striuk estimated 1,500 civilians in the city have died since the war began, from Russian attacks as well as from a lack of medicine or treatment.
Sievierodonetsk, the last major Ukrainian-held population center in the eastern Luhansk province, has become the focus of Russian attacks as Moscow attempts to control the Donbas region after failing to topple Zelenskyy or capture the capital, Kyiv, during more than three months of fighting. Sievierodonetsk is about 140 kilometers from the Russian border.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said Russian troops "use the same tactics over and over again. They shell for several hours — for three, four, five hours in a row — and then attack. Those who attack die. Then shelling and attack follow again and so on until they break through somewhere."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told France’s TF1 television Sunday that Moscow's "unconditional priority is the liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions," saying that Russia sees them as "independent states."
In Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden said he would not send rocket systems to Ukraine that could reach Russia. Ukraine has received extensive U.S. military aid but has requested more powerful rocket systems.
EU leaders divided
The potential setback for Ukraine came as EU countries met in Brussels to discuss further sanctions on Russia but could not agree to impose an oil embargo on Moscow.
Zelenskyy addressed the summit via video link, urging that Europe pass more sanctions against Russia, including a ban on Russian oil.
"All quarrels in Europe must end, internal disputes that only encourage Russia to put more and more pressure on you," Zelenskyy said.
"It is clear that there should be progress in sanctions against Russia," Zelensky added.
Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria have argued that they cannot afford to stop oil imports from Russia.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said while there is not agreement yet, he was cautiously optimistic that a deal could be reached in the near future.
"Everything that I hear makes it sound as if a consensus could be reached, and sooner or later, it will be," he told reporters.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala suggested that he was open to oil sanctions against Russia in the future.
"We’re ready to get rid of our dependence on Russia’s energy sources … but we’re not able to do it in a short term," he said.
The two-day summit in Brussels will continue Tuesday.
Toll on journalists
Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Monday that 32 media workers had been killed in Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion.
That includes French journalist Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, who died Monday near Sievierodonetsk.
French broadcaster BFM TV said the 32-year-old journalist was hit by shrapnel while reporting on Ukrainian evacuations from the area.
French President Emmanuel Macron sent his condolences to the family and colleagues of Leclerc-Imhoff, writing in a tweet that the journalist died showing "the reality of the war."
French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, who was in Ukraine on Monday, called for an investigation into the journalist’s death, saying in a statement that "France demands that a probe be carried out as soon as possible."
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.