Ukraine foreign minister says ‘we won’t be able to push them back’ without more arms.
Russia pounds Ukraine’s Donbas as war hits ‘maximum intensity’ on eastern front
The fighting in Eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region has reached ‘maximum intensity,’ according to Ukrainian officials who say their troops are being outnumbered by Russian forces, which are heavily shelling supply lines and escape routes in the east.
Moscow-backed separatists pounded eastern Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region Friday, claiming to capture a railway hub, as Ukrainian officials pleaded for the sophisticated Western weapons they say they need to stop the onslaught.
The advance of Russian forces raised fears that cities in the region would undergo the same horrors inflicted on the people of the port city Mariupol in the weeks before it fell.
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. Russia-backed rebels also said they’d taken the railway hub of Lyman.
Authorities say 1,500 people in Severodonetsk have died since the war’s start scarcely more than three months ago.
The governor of the Luhansk region warned that Ukrainian soldiers may have to retreat from Severodonetsk to avoid being surrounded. But he predicted an ultimate Ukrainian victory. “The Russians will not be able to capture Luhansk region in the coming days, as analysts predict,” Serhiy Haidai wrote on Telegram on Friday. “We will have enough forces and means to defend ourselves.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelesnsky also struck a defiant tone. In his nightly video address Friday, he said, “If the occupiers think that Lyman or Severodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbas will be Ukrainian.”
For now, Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk told The Associated Press that “the city is being systematically destroyed — 90 per cent of the buildings in the city are damaged.”
Striuk described conditions in Severodonetsk reminiscent of the battle for Mariupol, located in the Donbas’s other province, Donetsk. Now in ruins, the port 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, now in its 93rd day. 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.
In the city’s northeastern quarter, Russian reconnaissance and sabotage groups tried to capture the Mir Hotel and the area around it, 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.
Ukraine’s Donbas region has traditionally been a stronghold of pro-Russian support, but after months of war in its backyard, that once-unassailable loyalty to Russia in the east could be starting to dissipate. This week, we head back to the front lines of the Ukraine-Russia war and explore why some Ukrainians who once dreamed of a Russian-backed future are changing their minds. Featuring: Enrique Menendez, Ukrainian humanitarian aid worker. Mansur Mirovalev, Al Jazeera journalist covering eastern Ukraine conflicts.
That aggressive push could backfire, however, by seriously depleting Russia’s arsenal. Echoing an assessment from the British Defence 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 adviser Oleksiy Arestovich acknowledged the loss Thursday night, while a Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesperson reported Friday that its soldiers countered Russian attempts to completely push them out.
As Ukraine’s hopes of stopping the Russian advance faded, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pleaded with Western nations for heavy weapons, saying it was the one area in which Russia had a clear advantage
“Without artillery, without multiple launch rocket systems we won’t be able to push them back,” he said.
The U.S. Defence Department would not confirm a CNN report that the Biden administration was preparing to send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine, perhaps as early as next week. “Certainly we’re mindful and aware of Ukrainian asks, privately and publicly, for what is known as a multiple launch rocket system. And I won’t get ahead of decisions that haven’t been made yet,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that providing rockets that could reach his country would represent “a most serious step toward unacceptable escalation.” He spoke in an interview with RT Arabic that aired Friday.
Just south of Severodonetsk, volunteers hoped to evacuate about 100 people Friday 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.”
To the north, neighbouring Belarus — used by Russia as a staging ground before the invasion — announced Friday that it was sending troops toward the Ukrainian border.
In Russia’s Far East, a legislative deputy offered a rare display of opposition to the war in Ukraine, demanding the end of the military operation and the withdrawal of Russian troops. “We understand that if our country doesn’t stop the military operation, we’ll have more orphans in our country,” Leonid Vasyukevich of the Communist Party said Friday at a meeting of the Primorsk regional Legislative Assembly in the Pacific port of Vladivostok.
His comments, which he addressed to President Vladimir Putin, were shown in a video posted on a Telegram. Another deputy followed to support Vasyukevich’s views. But the legislative assembly’s chairman issued a statement afterward calling the remarks a “political provocation” not supported by the majority of lawmakers.
Global food crisis
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 Premier 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 the two leaders also discussed a prisoner exchange and that Putin indicated efforts to arrange one would be “intensified.”
With files from Reuters
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