‘Relentless’: Russia squeezes Ukrainian strongholds in east

Kramatorsk: Russia-backed separatists claim they have captured a railway hub in eastern Ukraine as Moscow’s forces pushed to gain more ground by pounding another Ukrainian-held area where authorities say 1500 people have died since the war’s start.

The Moscow-backed rebels said they have taken over Lyman, a large railway hub in Donetsk, while the governor of the Luhansk province said Sievierodonetsk is being “systematically destroyed”. Donetsk and Luhansk are in the Donbas region.

Destroyed houses are seen after Russian shelling in Soledar, Donetsk, this week.Credit:AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko

With Russia’s offensive in Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region showing incremental progress, Ukrainian officials characterised the battle as grave and renewed their appeals for more sophisticated Western-supplied weaponry. Without that, the foreign minister warned, Ukrainian forces won’t be able to stop Russia’s advance on the east.

Some European leaders sought dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin toward ending a war — now in its 93rd day — with global economic repercussions, while Britain’s foreign minister worked to rally the West’s continued support for Ukraine.

“There should be no talk of cease-fires, or appeasing Putin. We need to make sure that Ukraine wins. And that Russia withdraws and that we never see this type of Russian aggression again,” UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.

But in Ukraine’s east, Russia does have the upper hand. The fighting on Friday focused on two key cities: Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk. They are the last areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk, one of two provinces that make up the Donbas and where Moscow-backed separatists have controlled some territory for eight years.

“Massive artillery shelling does not stop, day and night,” Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk told The Associated Press. “The city is being systematically destroyed — 90 per cent of the buildings in the city are damaged.”

At least 1500 people have died in Sievierodonetsk because of the war since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, he said. About 12,000 to 13,000 people remain in the city — down from a pre-war population of about 100,000, he said. Those remaining are huddled in shelters, largely cut off from the rest of Ukraine.

Volunteers hoped to evacuate about 100 people on Friday from a smaller city just to Sievierodonetsk’s south. It was a painstaking process: Many of the evacuees from Bakhmut were elderly or infirm and needed to be carried out of apartment buildings in soft stretchers and wheelchairs.

Minibuses and vans zipped through the city, picking up dozens for the first leg of a long journey west by car or train.

A Ukrainian serviceman guards in the village of Mayaky in the Donetsk region on Friday. Credit:AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko

“Bakhmut is a high-risk area right now,” said Mark Poppert, an American volunteer working with British charity RefugEase. “We’re trying to get as many people out as we can.”

In Donetsk, the other Donbas province, the Russia-backed rebels said on Friday they took over Lyman, a large railway hub north of two more key cities still under Ukrainian control.

“We lost Lyman,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich acknowledged. However, a Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesperson reported on Friday that its soldiers countered Russian attempts to push them completely out of the city.

Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said Russian forces have taken advantage of delays in Western arms shipments to step up their offensive in the east, bringing in up to a dozen additional battalion tactical groups.

Throwing so much muscle at the offensive, though, could backfire by seriously depleting Russia’s arsenal. Echoing an assessment from the British Defence Ministry, Zhdanov said Russia was deploying 50-year-old T-62 tanks, “which means that the second army of the world has run out of modernised equipment”.

Mykola Sunhurovskyi, an analyst at Kyiv’s Razumkov Centre, said that going forward, “It is in Putin’s interests to solidify the situation that has developed today at the front, biting off from Ukraine what there is still strength for, and secure this line of contact as a position in (eventual) negotiations.”

As Ukraine’s hopes of stopping the Russian advance faded, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pleaded with Western nations: “We need heavy weapons … without artillery, without multiple launch rocket systems we won’t be able to push them back.”

In his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had some harsh words for the European Union, which has not agreed on a sixth round of sanctions that includes an embargo on Russian oil. Hungary, one of Moscow’s closest allies in the EU, is obstructing the deal.

“Every day of delay, weakness, various disputes or proposals to ‘appease’ the aggressor at the expense of the victim is (results in) new killed Ukrainians,” he said. “And new threats to everyone on our continent.”

Zelensky said Russia’s offensive in the Donbas could leave its communities in ashes, and he accused Moscow of “an obvious policy of genocide” through mass deportations and killings of civilians.

On Thursday, Russian shelling of Kharkiv, a northeastern city that has been under assault while Ukrainian forces keep the invading troops out, killed nine people, including a father and his five-month-old baby, the president said.

AP reporters saw the bodies of at least two dead men and four wounded at a central subway station, where the victims were taken as shelling continued outside.

To the north, neighbouring Belarus announced on Friday that it was sending troops toward the Ukrainian border, raising concerns in Ukraine’s military command. Russia used Belarus as a staging ground before it invaded Ukraine.

European leaders have been speaking with Putin about easing the growing global food crisis exacerbated by Kyiv’s inability to ship millions of tons of grain and other agricultural products while under attack.

AP

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