Shelling has intensified in the city of Severodonetsk – one of the few parts of the Luhansk region in Donbas that is still under Ukrainian government control.
Russian forces are attacking from three sides in an effort to encircle the city and neighbouring Lysychansk, knowing that if they fall, nearly all of Luhansk will be under Russian control.
Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of Luhansk, said that around 50 Russian soldiers had reached an important highway, managing to “gain a foothold” and set up a checkpoint.
“The checkpoint was broken, they were thrown back…the Russian army does not control the route now, but they are shelling it.”
He said the Ukrainian fighters might leave “one settlement, maybe two”, but he added: “We need to win the war, not the battle”.
“It is clear that our boys are slowly retreating to more fortified positions – we need to hold back this horde.”
Russia launched a full invasion of Ukraine in late February but it has backed separatists in the southern Donbas region since 2014.
After abandoning its attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital Kyiv early in May, it moved to concentrate on Donbas, which includes the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.
During his nightly address, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “Ukraine will always be an independent state and it won’t be broken.
“The only question is what price our people will have to pay for their freedom, and what price Russia will pay for this senseless war against us.”
Meanwhile, at least eight people were killed – including a five-month-old child – and 17 were injured in shelling in Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv on Thursday.
In other developments:
• Ukrainian forces withdrew from Svitlodarsk and Russian fighters have occupied the local government building and hung a Soviet flag at the door
• Ukraine’s military says 50 towns in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces were shelled on Thursday
• The US is considering giving Kyiv a rocket system with a range of hundreds of miles, having spoken with Ukrainian officials about the danger of escalation if they strike inside Russia
• Two Russian soldiers – Alexander Alexeevich Ivanov and Alexander Vladimirovich Bobykin – have pleaded guilty in a Ukrainian court to shelling civilian infrastructure with a rocket launcher. They could face up to 12 years in jail
• Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin became the latest European leader to go to Ukraine on Thursday, visiting the towns of Bucha and Irpin, and meeting Mr Zelenskyy in Kyiv
Mr Zelenskyy also told the West to stop playing around with Russia and impose tougher sanctions, showing some frustration at the pace of the European Union’s move towards a possible ban on Russian oil.
He said: “The catastrophic unfolding events could be still stopped if the world treated the situation in Ukraine as if it were facing the same situation, if the powers that be did not play around with Russia but really pressed to end the war.”
Russia is receiving €1bn a day from the EU nations for energy supplies, he added, asking why some are being allowed to block the ban.
Any ban would require the agreement of each of the 27 EU countries but Hungary is against the idea, fearing the consequences for its economy.
“Pressure on Russia is literally a matter of saving lives,” Mr Zelenskyy said.
“Every day of procrastination, weakness, various disputes or proposals to ‘pacify’ the aggressor at the expense of the victim merely means more Ukrainians being killed.”