KYIV, Ukraine (AFP)— Fierce battles raged in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, with Russian troops on the verge of encircling a key industrial city, as President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a bitter rebuke of the West for not doing enough to help Kyiv win the war.
Lugansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday described fighting outside of the industrial city of Severodonetsk, a key military goal for Russia, as "very difficult," saying Russian troops were shelling the city from the outskirts with mortars.
"The coming week will be decisive," Gaiday said in a video posted on Telegram, adding he believes Russia's goal is to "capture the Lugansk region no matter what cost".
"There is a colossal amount of shelling," he added.
Earlier in the day, addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Ukraine's Foreign Ministry Dmytro Kuleba compared the battle for Donbass to the epic battles fought in World War II and said his country "badly" needs multiple launch rocket systems to match Russian firepower.
In Kyiv, Zelensky echoed that plea.
"We need the help of our partners -- above all, weapons for Ukraine. Full help, without exceptions, without limits, enough to win," Zelensky said in his daily address to the nation.
And he called out the international community for paying too much attention to Russia's interests and too little to Ukraine's.
The Ukrainian president blasted a recent New York Times editorial and other similar statements by influential Western figures suggesting that Ukraine might have to sacrifice some territory to end the conflict.
"We must do everything in our power so that the world develops a firm habit to take Ukraine into consideration, so that the interests of Ukrainians don’t get overtaken by the interests of those rushing to yet another meeting with the dictator," Zelensky said.
- 'Clear blackmail' -
Russia's February 24 invasion of its pro-Western neighbour has caused global shockwaves, with the latest being fears of food shortages, particularly in Africa.
Moscow blamed the international sanctions imposed after the invasion, while the West says the shortage is mainly down to Russia's blockade of Ukrainian ports.
"Solving the food problem requires a comprehensive approach, including the removal of sanctions that have been imposed on Russian exports and financial transactions," said Russian deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko.
But Kuleba urged the West not to give in.
"This is clear blackmail. You could not find a better example of blackmail in international relations," Kuleba said in Davos.
Kuleba also slammed the western military alliance NATO for "doing literally nothing" to stop Russia.
- 'Extremely heavy shelling' -
Moscow's army has plotted a slow but steady course deeper into Ukraine's eastern Donbas region since withdrawing forces from central and northern regions.
In the eastern town of Soledar, Ukraine's salt manufacturing hub, the ground shook moments after Natalia Timofeyenko climbed out of her bunker.
"I go outside just to see people. I know that there is shelling out there but I go," the 47-year-old said after a thundering blast smashed apart a chunk of a salt mine where she worked with most of her friends and neighbours.
Ghostly frontline towns like Soledar are being hammered by Russian artillery as they sit along the crucial road that leads out of besieged Severodonetsk and its sister city Lysychansk.
Twelve people were killed by "extremely heavy shelling and attacks" in the neighbouring region of Donetsk, which also forms part of Donbas, the Ukrainian presidency said.
In a sign that the rest of the country remains at risk, Russian cruise missiles struck the major southern rail hub of Zaporizhzhia, killing one person and damaging dozens of houses, the presidency added.
- 'It is just war' -
Russia also sought to tighten its grip over the parts of southern Ukraine that it occupies.
President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday signed a decree simplifying a procedure to obtain a Russian passport for residents of the southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson, under the full control of Russian troops, and partly-occupied Zaporizhzhia.
Kyiv said the plan was a "flagrant violation" of Ukraine's sovereignty.
Moscow-backed officials are pushing for formal annexation by Russia.
"People are very apprehensive," Kherson trolleybus driver Alexander Loginov, 47, told AFP from the cabin of his vehicle, during a press trip organised by the Russian defence ministry.
Day-to-day life remains marked by uncertainty, especially over payment of salaries as "Ukrainian banks are closing," he said. "To be honest, it is just war."
Underlining the human cost, about 200 bodies were found in the basement of a destroyed building of the port city of Mariupol, which fell to Moscow recently after a devastating siege, Ukrainian authorities said.
"It is impossible to be within the area due to the corpse smell," Ukrainian ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova wrote on Telegram Wednesday. "The occupiers turned the entire Mariupol into a cemetery."