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Russians fight to encircle Ukraine’s last eastern stronghold

Workers clearing debris at damaged shopping center
Workers clear debris at a shopping center struck by a Russian rocket attack in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, on Wednesday.
(Efrem Lukatsky / Associated Press)

Russian forces battled Wednesday to surround the Ukrainian military’s last stronghold in a long-contested eastern province as shock reverberated from a Russian airstrike on a shopping mall that killed at least 18 people in the center of the country two days earlier.

Moscow’s battle to wrest the entire eastern Donbas region from Ukraine saw Russian forces pushing toward two Luhansk province villages south of the city of Lysychansk while Ukrainian troops fought to prevent their encirclement.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russian forces were making “incremental advances” in their offensive to capture the city. Lysychansk is the last major area of the province under Ukrainian control following the retreat of Ukraine’s fighters from the neighboring city of Severodonetsk.

Russian troops and their separatist allies control 95% of Luhansk and hold about half of Donetsk province, which with Luhansk makes up the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas.

The latest assessment by the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank based in Washington, said the Ukrainians were probably in a fighting withdrawal to seek more defensible positions while draining the Russian military forces of personnel and resources.

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Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said Russia “may think time is on its side” because of the escalating costs borne by the West and fatigue as the war goes on. The most likely scenario predicted by American intelligence, Haines said, is a “grinding struggle” in which Russia consolidates its hold over southern Ukraine by the fall.

The U.S. correctly predicted Russia would invade Ukraine in February, but was wrong in assessing that it would quickly seize Kyiv. Speaking at an event in Washington on Wednesday, Haines said Russian President Vladimir Putin “has effectively the same political goals that he had previously, which is to say that he wants to take most of Ukraine” and push it away from NATO.

“We perceive a disconnect between Putin’s near-term military objectives in this area and his military’s capacity, a kind of mismatch between his ambitions and what the military is able to accomplish,” Haines said.

Meanwhile, crews continued to search through the rubble of the shopping mall in Kremenchuk where Ukrainian authorities say 20 people remained missing.

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Ukrainian State Emergency Services press officer Svitlana Rybalko told the Associated Press that, along with the 18 people killed, investigators found fragments of eight more bodies. It was not immediately clear whether that meant there were more victims. A number of survivors suffered severed limbs.

“The police cannot say for sure how many [victims] there are. So we are finding not the bodies but the fragments of bodies,” Rybalko said. “Now we are clearing at the very epicenter of the blast. Here, we practically cannot find bodies as such.”

Several families stood by what was left of the Amstor shopping center Wednesday morning in hopes of finding missing loved ones.

People laying flowers for victims of Russian rocket attack
People lay flowers Wednesday for the victims of a Russian rocket attack on a shopping mall in Kremenchuk, Ukraine.
(Efrem Lukatsky / Associated Press)

“This is pure genocide,” resident Tatiana Chernyshova said while going to lay flowers at the site. “Such things cannot happen in the 21st century. Peaceful people suffer.”

“We need to engage everyone to help stop the war, help us fight these scum — these Russian aggressors,” Chernyshova said.

Psychologists working at the site with families said they were trying to help people come to terms with their losses.

“We are trying to help them release their emotions now, as later it becomes harder and much more painful,” said one psychologist, who did not give his name as he was not authorized to speak to the press.

U.S. attorney general visits to offer help in war crimes prosecutions. Moscow says death penalty for purportedly captive Americans can’t be ruled out.

After the attack on the mall, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of becoming a “terrorist” state. On Wednesday, he reproached NATO for not embracing or equipping his embattled country more fully.

“The open-door policy of NATO shouldn’t resemble old turnstiles on Kyiv’s subway, which stay open but close when you approach them until you pay,” Zelensky told NATO leaders meeting in Madrid, speaking by video link. “Hasn’t Ukraine paid enough? Hasn’t our contribution to defending Europe and the entire civilization been sufficient?”

He asked for more modern artillery systems and other weapons and warned the leaders that they either had to provide Ukraine with the help it needed to defeat Russia or “face a delayed war between Russia and yourself.”

KyivPride moved to Poland this year and was a platform to keep international attention focused on Ukraine’s struggle against Russia.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Wednesday dismissed what she called the Ukrainian government’s “blatant provocation” in trying to blame the mall missile strike on Russia’s military.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said there was a “realistic possibility” that the missile strike on the shopping center “was intended to hit a nearby infrastructure target.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky onscreen addressing NATO summit
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses NATO leaders via video during their summit in Madrid.
(Manu Fernandez / Associated Press)

“Russian planners highly likely remain willing to accept a high level of collateral damage when they perceive military necessity in striking a target,” the ministry said. “It is almost certain that Russia will continue to conduct strikes in an effort to interdict the resupplying of Ukrainian front-line forces.”

Russia’s military also is experiencing a shortage of more modern precision strike weapons that is compounding civilian casualties, the British ministry said.

In southern Ukraine, a Russian missile strike on a multistory apartment building Wednesday in the city of Mykolaiv killed at least four people and injured five, regional Gov. Vitaliy Kim said.

Mykolaiv is a major Ukrainian port, and seizing it, as well as Odesa farther west, would be key to Russia’s objective of cutting off Ukraine from its Black Sea coast.


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