Last Ukrainian strongholds in the east totter under Russian onslaught
Russia-backed separatists pounded eastern Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region Friday, claiming the capture of a railway hub as concerns grew that besieged cities in the region would undergo the same horrors experienced by the people of Mariupol in the weeks leading up to the port’s capture.
Ukrainian officials renewed their appeals for more sophisticated Western-supplied weaponry. Without it, they said, Ukrainian forces wouldn’t be able to stop Russia’s offensive.
The fighting Friday focused on two key cities: Severodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk. They are the last areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk, one of two provinces that make up the Donbas and where Russia-backed separatists have already controlled some territory for eight years. Authorities say 1,500 people in Severodonetsk have already died since the war’s start scarcely more than three months ago.
“Massive artillery shelling does not stop, day and night,” Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk told the Associated Press. “The city is being systematically destroyed — 90% of the buildings in the city are damaged.”
Striuk described conditions in Severodonetsk reminiscent of the battle for Mariupol, located in the Donbas’ other province, Donetsk. Now in ruins, the port city was constantly barraged by Russian forces in a nearly three-month siege that ended last week when Russia claimed its capture. More than 20,000 of its civilians are feared dead.
Before the war, Severodonetsk was home to around 100,000 people. About 12,000 to 13,000 remain in the city, Striuk said, huddled in shelters and largely cut off from the rest of Ukraine. At least 1,500 people have died because of the war. The figure includes people killed by shelling or in fires caused by Russian missile strikes, as well as those who died from shrapnel wounds, untreated diseases, a lack of medicine or while trapped under rubble, the mayor said.
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An assault was underway in the city’s northeastern quarter, where Russian reconnaissance and sabotage groups tried to capture the Mir Hotel and the area around it Friday, Striuk said.
Hints of Russia’s strategy for the Donbas can be found in Mariupol, where Moscow is consolidating its control through measures including state-controlled broadcast programming and overhauled school curricula, according to an analysis from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.
Gen. Philip Breedlove, former head of U.S. European Command for NATO, said Friday during a panel mounted by the Washington-based Middle East Institute that Russia appears to have “once again adjusted its objectives, and fearfully now it seems that they are trying to consolidate and enforce the land that they have rather than focus on expanding it.”
But the relentless assaults in the Donbas also indicated Russia’s desire to expand its dominion there. Ukrainian analysts said Russian forces have taken advantage of delays in Western arms shipments to step up their offensive there.
That aggressive push could backfire, however, by seriously depleting Russia’s arsenal. Echoing an assessment from the British Defense Ministry, military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said Russia was deploying 50-year-old T-62 tanks, “which means that the second army of the world has run out of modernized equipment.”
Russia-backed rebels said Friday that they had taken over Lyman, Donetsk’s large railway hub north of two more key cities still under Ukrainian control. Ukrainian presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych acknowledged the loss Thursday night, though a Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesperson reported Friday that its soldiers countered Russian attempts to completely push them out.
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As Ukraine’s hopes of stopping the Russian advance faded, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pleaded with Western nations for heavy weapons, saying it was the one area in which Russia had a clear advantage.
“We need heavy weapons,” Kuleba said in a video posted on Twitter on Thursday night. “The only position where Russia is better than us, it’s the amount of heavy weapons they have. Without artillery, without multiple launch rocket systems, we won’t be able to push them back.”
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Just south of Severodonetsk, volunteers hoped to evacuate 100 people from a smaller town. 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.
“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 his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had harsh words for the European Union, whose 27 member nations have not been able to come to an agreement on a sixth round of sanctions, including an embargo on Russian oil. Hungary, one of Moscow’s closest allies in the EU, is obstructing the deal.
Zelensky said Russia’s offensive in the Donbas could leave its communities in ashes, and he accused Moscow of pursuing “an obvious policy of genocide” through mass deportations and killings of civilians.
On Thursday, Russian shelling of Kharkiv, a northeastern city that is Ukraine’s second largest, killed nine people, including a father and his 5-month-old baby, Zelensky said.
Associated Press reporters saw 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, neighboring Belarus announced 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.
Weeks after Russian occupation, rural areas outside Ukraine’s capital still yield forest graves. Exhumations remain a near-daily task for police.
Some European leaders sought dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin about easing the global food crisis, exacerbated by Ukraine’s inability to ship millions of tons of grain and other agricultural products.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said there were no breakthroughs during his Thursday conversation with Putin.
“If you are asking me if there are openings for peace, the answer is no,” Draghi told reporters.
Moscow has sought to shift the blame for the food crisis to the West, calling upon its leaders to lift existing sanctions.
Putin told Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer on Friday that Ukraine should remove Black Sea mines to allow safe shipping, according to a Kremlin readout of their conversation; Russia and Ukraine have traded blame for the mines near Ukraine’s ports.
Nehammer’s office said that the two leaders also discussed a prisoner exchange and that Putin indicated efforts to arrange one would be “intensified.”
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