Russian Forces Launch Relentless Bid to Control Key Ukrainian City of Donbas in the East

Russian forces were moving into the strategic city of Severodonetsk on Friday in a relentless offensive to seize control of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, shelling residential areas and claiming to capture a key town.

At least nine people were killed Thursday in a bombing of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, raising fears that Russia has not lost interest in the northeastern hub even after Ukraine managed to regain control. The regional commander of the National Guard said about 10 people were also killed in Russian strikes on a military facility in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro, far from the front line of the attack.

Three months after Russia launched its invasion on February 24, which left thousands dead on both sides and forced 6.6 million Ukrainians to leave the country, Moscow is focusing on eastern Ukraine after its initial ambition to capture Kyiv failed. Russian forces were approaching Severodonetsk as well as Lyschansk in the pro-separatist Lugansk Province, which stands on the crucial road to the eastern administrative center of Ukraine at Kramatorsk.

“Russia is putting pressure on the Severodonetsk enclave despite Ukraine retaining control over multiple defensive sectors, depriving Russia of full control of the Donbass islands,” the British Ministry of Defense said in its latest briefing.

The official Russian news agency quoted a Luhansk police official as saying RIA NovostiSeverodonetsk, he said, was “now besieged” and Ukrainian forces could no longer leave the city. This was denied by senior city official Oleksandr Stryuk, although he acknowledged that the situation was “extremely difficult” as the bombing continued.

The pro-Russian separatists said they had captured the town of Lyman located between Severodonetsk and Kramatorsk, on the road to the main cities still under the control of Kyiv. The governor of Lugansk region, Sergei Gaidai, said in a video on Telegram that at least five civilians were killed in his region in the past 24 hours alone.

“People are willing to risk everything to get food and water,” said Oleksandr Kozyr, head of the main aid distribution center in Lysekhansk. They are so depressed they are no longer afraid. All they care about is finding food.”

The metro will not stop

Oleg Senegubov, the governor of the Kharkiv region, said nine civilians were killed in the Russian bombing on Thursday. He said on social media that a five-month-old girl and her father were among the dead, while her mother was seriously injured.

The mayor of Kharkiv, Igor Terekov, said that the metro system, which resumed work this week after being used mainly as a shelter since the Russian invasion, will continue to function while providing a safe space for residents.

“We will not stop the metro, but we will allocate special sectors where you can stay and shelter from the bombing,” Terekhov said.

Observers believe that Russia’s gains in more than three months of the war have been much less than President Vladimir Putin had hoped, despite Moscow’s control of a few cities in southern Ukraine, such as Kherson and Mariupol. The Kremlin is now seeking to tighten its grip on the parts of Ukraine it occupies, including the rapid acquisition of citizenship for residents of areas under Russian control.

Kyiv said Russian authorities in Mariupol, which they seized this month after a devastating siege that left thousands dead and reduced the city to rubble, have canceled school holidays to prepare students to switch to Russian curricula. There has been speculation that Russia might seek to annex the regions of eastern and southern Ukraine it now controls, possibly in referendums during Russia’s regional elections held across the country in September.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will speak with European Union leaders at an emergency summit on Monday in a bid to agree oil sanctions against Russia, which were brought together by Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has close ties to Putin. “Instead of continuing trade with (Russia), we need to act until they stop the policy of aggression,” Zelensky said in a virtual address to a think-tank in Indonesia, which is hosting this year’s G-20 summit.

Fear of escalation

There were also tensions between Kyiv and some Western countries, notably Germany, over a perceived reluctance to supply more arms to Ukraine for fear of intensifying the conflict. Ukraine has also expressed dissatisfaction with suggestions that Putin be offered a “slope way out” to save face in a compromise deal that would give Kyiv some land.

“Some partners avoid giving needed weapons for fear of escalation. Escalation, really?” Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter, saying it was time to respond by giving Kyiv Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS).

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he feared Putin “continues to chew the ground in Donbass”. “Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that we continue to support the Ukrainians militarily,” he said.

‘Need to work’

Concerns are also growing about global food shortages due to conflict, exacerbating problems for the world’s poor at a time of soaring energy prices. Russia and Ukraine alone produce 30 percent of the world’s wheat supply, as ships carrying grain cannot leave ports in Ukraine.

But the Kremlin said Putin dismissed allegations that Russia was blocking Ukraine’s grain exports as “baseless” in a phone call on Friday with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nahammer. On Thursday, Putin told Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi that Moscow was ready to make a “significant contribution” to averting a looming food crisis if the West lifted sanctions imposed since the Ukrainian invasion.

But the United States mocked Putin’s offer, with Pentagon spokesman John Kirby accusing Moscow of “weaponizing economic assistance.”

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