Ukraine’s president says the fate of the Donbas hinges on “very brutal” fighting in Sievierodonetsk, a city that’s emerged as a key battleground in recent weeks.

Russia is laying siege to the eastern city as it pursues its aim of capturing the sprawling Donbas region.

“This is a very brutal battle, very tough, perhaps one of the most difficult throughout this war,” said President Zelenskyy in his nightly message.”

“Sievierodonetsk remains the epicentre of the encounter in Donbas… Largely, that is where the fate of our Donbas is being decided now,” he added.

He said Ukraine was “inflicting significant losses on the enemy”, however many troops also pulled back to the city’s outskirts yesterday amid fierce shelling.

The centre of the city – which had a pre-war population of about 100,000 – is being turned into a wasteland, said the governor of Luhansk – one of the two regions that make up the Donbas.

“Our fighters are hanging on in the Sievierodonetsk industrial zone,” said Serhiy Gaidai.

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“But fighting is going on not just in the industrial zone, but right in the city of Sievierodonetsk.”

An adviser to President Zelenskyy’s office, Oleksiy Arestovych, said airstrikes and artillery were pounding the city from afar. “They are hitting hard without any particular success,” he added.

Ukrainian troops are massively outnumbered in the Donbas, Kyiv’s US ambassador told CNN.

However, it’s hoped longer-range rocket systems being sent from America and the UK could help fight the Russian artillery that’s doing so much damage.

‘Endless caravan of death’ in the ruins

As the battle rages around Sievierodonetsk, an official in Mariupol said an “endless caravan of death” was being uncovered as they search ruined buildings.

Fifty to 100 bodies are being uncovered in each bombed apartment block – and about two-fifths of the city’s buildings have been searched so far, said mayoral aide Petro Andryushchenko.

The remains are being taken to landfills and morgues.

The southeastern city is now in Russian hands after the worst onslaught of the war killed more than 20,000 people, according to Ukrainian estimates.

Meanwhile, political wrangling over the war’s threat to food supplies are continuing.

Russia has expressed support for a UN plan to allow Ukraine’s grain exports to flow again. An estimated 22 million tons are stuck in the country.

Ukraine is a key producer of wheat, corn and sunflower oil and there are fears the Russian blockade of ports could cause a serious food shortage in some developing countries.

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Food shortages to affect millions more

Turkey has been trying to broker a deal to reopen the ports and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met his Turkish counterpart on Wednesday for talks.

Mr Lavrov said the ports could operate again if mines are removed from surrounding waters.

However, Ukraine fears it would allow Russia to attack the coast and doesn’t trust Kremlin assurances to the contrary.

Russia is itself a major grain exporter and has blamed the food supply problems on Western sanctions against its ships.

European Council President Charles Michel has denied the claims and accused Russia of “weaponizing food supplies and surrounding their actions with a web of lies, Soviet-style”.