Russia closes in on key Ukraine Donbas city

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - LYSYCHANSK (Ukraine), May 27 — Russian forces were closing today on the strategic city of Severodonetsk in a relentless offensive to control Ukraine’s Donbas region, bombing residential areas and claiming the capture of a key town.

At least nine people were killed in shelling of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, raising fears that Russia had not lost interest in the northeastern hub even after Ukraine managed to take back control.

Around 10 people were also killed in Russian strikes on a military facility in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro, well away from the frontline of the offensive, the regional head of the national guard said.

Three months after Russia launched its invasion on February 24, leaving thousands dead on both sides and forcing 6.6 million Ukrainians out of the country, Moscow is focusing on the east of Ukraine after failing in its initial ambition to capture Kyiv.

Russian forces were closing in on Severodonetsk and also Lysychansk, which stand on the crucial route to Ukraine’s eastern administrative centre in Kramatorsk.

“Russia is pressuring the Severodonetsk pocket although Ukraine retains control of multiple defended sectors, denying Russia full control of the Donbas,” the British defence ministry said in its latest briefing.

Oleksandr Stryuk, the head of the military and civilian administration of Severodonetsk, said two-thirds of its perimeter was already occupied by Russian forces and its chemical factory Azot had been bombed.

“The Russians have been trying to capture the city for a week-and-a-half. It is resisting thanks to the incredible efforts of our fighters,” he added, describing the Russian bombing as “incessant.” Pro-Russian separatists said they had captured the town of Lyman that lies between Severodonetsk and Kramatorsk, on the road leading to the key cities that are still under Kyiv’s control.

Lugansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday said in a video on Telegram that at least five civilians had been killed in his region — part of Donbas — in the last 24 hours alone.

Four had been killed in Severodonetsk and one in Komyshovakha, 50 kilometres (30 miles) away, he said, accusing Russia of “ceaselessly shelling residential areas.” “People are willing to risk everything to get food and water,” said Oleksandr Kozyr, the head of the main aid distribution centre in Lysychansk.

“They are so psychologically depressed that they are no longer scared. All they care about is finding food,” he said.

‘Won’t stop the metro’

Oleg Sinegubov, governor of the Kharkiv region, said that nine civilians had been killed in the Russian shelling yesterday.

A five-month-old child and her father were among the dead, while her mother was gravely wounded, he said on social media channels.

The city of Kharkiv’s mayor, Igor Terekhov, said its metro system, which resumed work this week after being used mainly as a shelter since the Russian invasion, would continue operating while still 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 bombing,” Terekhov said.

Observers believe that Russia’s gains in over three months of war have been far more paltry than President Vladimir Putin hoped, though Moscow has gained control over a handful of cities in southern Ukraine, such as Kherson and Mariupol.

The Kremlin is now seeking to tighten its grip over the parts of Ukraine it occupies, including fast-tracking citizenship for residents of areas under Russian control.

Russian authorities in Mariupol, which was taken over this month after a devastating siege that left thousands dead and reduced the city to rubble, cancelled school holidays to prepare students to switch to a Russian curriculum, according to Kyiv.

There has been speculation that Russia could seek to annex areas of eastern and southern Ukraine it now controls, possibly in referendums during Russian regional elections held nationwide in September.

‘Fear of escalation’

There have been tensions between Kyiv and some Western nations, in particular Germany, over a perceived reluctance to supply more weapons to Ukraine lest the conflict intensify further.

Ukraine has also bristled at suggestions that Putin should be offered an “off ramp” to save face in a compromise deal that would see Kyiv concede some territory.

“Some partners avoid giving the necessary weapons because of fear of the escalation. Escalation, really?” Zelensky’s 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 that Putin was “continuing to chew through ground in Donbas.” “And therefore, it is absolutely vital that we continue to support the Ukrainians militarily,” he said.

‘Need to act’

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a virtual address to a think tank in Indonesia, which is hosting this year’s G20 summit, that “rather than continue trading with (Russia), we need to act until they stop their policy of aggression.” Concerns are also growing over global food shortages due to the conflict, exacerbating problems for the world’s poor at a time of rising energy prices.

Russia and Ukraine alone produce 30 per cent of the global wheat supply, with grain-carrying vessels unable to leave ports in Ukraine.

Putin said in a telephone call with Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi that Moscow was ready to make a “significant contribution” to averting a looming food crisis if the West lifts sanctions imposed on his country over Ukraine.

Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev said Friday that Russia was looking to ramp up its production of grain to export in the coming season.

But the United States scoffed at Putin’s offer, with Pentagon spokesman John Kirby accusing Moscow of “weaponising economic assistance.” — AFP

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