Russia has increased its use of air power in support of artillery and ground troops who are fighting to expand their territory in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, including in the city of Sievierodonetsk, a British intelligence report said on Saturday.
Ukrainian forces moved heavy guns and howitzers toward the front line in Sievierodonetsk on Friday, pouring men and armor into the fight in an apparent refusal to pull back from a city that Russia has pounded with missile fire for weeks. A Russian defense ministry statement on Saturday said that Ukrainian forces were retreating from the city, a position that Ukrainian officials have denied. The regional Ukrainian military administrator had said overnight that Ukrainian troops had managed to push back Russian forces by 20 percent.
President Vladimir V. Putin’s forces has made the heavily industrial Donbas region, which borders Russia, the focus of his military campaign after Russian forces failed to seize the capital Kyiv, early in the conflict.
That came in part, because of Moscow’s inability to destroy Ukraine’s air defense systems.
In the war’s second phase, however, Russia has deployed air power to support guided and unguided missile strikes in what the British intelligence report on Sunday called its “creeping advance.”
“The combined use of air and artillery strikes has been a key factor in Russia’s recent tactical successes in the region,” the report said. It noted that the increased use of unguided munitions has “almost certainly” caused civilian casualties.
Sievierodonetsk is in the Luhansk region of the Donbas. The head of the Ukrainian military administration there, Serhiy Haidai, said Saturday that a mother and child were killed in the past day’s fighting, the latest casualties in a battle from which the vast majority of the city’s population has fled. Mr. Haidai did not offer details on how they were killed.
Though the Donbas, where it has held territory since 2014, is Russia’s strategic priority, the front line stretches hundreds of miles from the Russian border north of the country’s second largest city, Kharkiv, to the city of Mykolaiv on the Black Sea. That distance and the expanse of the fighting is putting pressure on Ukraine’s government, whose forces risk being stretched thin.
Russian forces poured “intense fire” on Ukrainian positions in villages north of the city of Kharkiv, the Ukrainian defense ministry said on Saturday.
Further south, in Donetsk Province — which together with Luhansk makes up the Donbas — Russian forces shelled three villages near the city of Sloviansk and attempted an assault on another, the defense ministry said.
And a cruise missile, fired from a plane by Russian forces, hit the Odesa region on the Black Sea coast early Saturday morning, Odesa city officials said on Telegram. The missile struck a mostly agricultural area with warehouses, injuring two people, according to the officials.